Tag Archives: year A

**NEW** Preaching on Creation: Sunday July 3-9 in Year A (Carr)

Taking on Rationalization Amy Carr reflects on donkeys facing war horses.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 3-9, Year A (2020, 2023)

Zachariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is both utopic political imagination and Machiavellian rationalization at play in today’s scripture readings. We need the former if we are to minimize climate catastrophe, and ways of reckoning with the latter if we are to enact the kind of collective transformation we need to bring down global temperatures.

On one hand, in our first reading, we have Zechariah’s ludicrous vision of a coming humble king who will exercise dominion while riding a donkey, on whose back he somehow defeats enemies riding mighty war horses. Jesus casts his own authority likewise as that of one who is “gentle and humble in heart, even as “[a]ll things have been handed over to [him] by [his] Father” (Matthew 11:29, 27). The juxtaposition of immense authority and humility is jarring, yet abruptly trust-evoking. Koan-like, the pairing of dominion and humility startles us into a new awareness—a tangible sense of how collective security can be based on mutual trust rather than coercive force.

On the other hand, Jesus wryly observes that “this generation” rationalizes its opposition to the prospect of God’s emerging humility-rooted kingdom by making whatever argument seems to suit the person or the moment: John the Baptist’s calls to repentance are hushed because he was weirdly austere (“neither eating nor drinking”), so he must have “a demon” (Matthew 11:18); yet Jesus’ calls to repentance are ridiculed as hypocritical warnings of a “glutton and a drunkard” because he enjoys “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19). Indeed, in every generation, we can be blind about the shifting ways we rationalize a cynical complacency, especially about a call to turn in a radically new direction as a species. We can be tempted to portray every visionary as somehow dangerous or corrupt, and thereby dismiss their message.

If Jesus keenly names the kind of hypocrisy that might drive a Machiavellian will to power, Paul gets at why we might be drawn to going along with those who speak of securing the current order of things, even if we know it’s less than ideal for all. Paul peels back the mask to call out the sheer absurdity of rationalizing our resistance to acting for the common good:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7:21-23).

Perhaps rationalizations that are rooted in selective, belittling observations of prophetic leaders are themselves a mask for despair about our individual or collective ability to act more justly toward one another and toward creation. We see there is a better way, but we feel unable to pursue it—so we justify our sense of stuckness.

It is precisely this inability that Paul believes is healed by baptism into the corporate body of Christ: “Wretched man that I am! Who will heal me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a). When we who “are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” come to Jesus for “rest,” and take Jesus’ “yoke” upon us and “learn from” him as  one who is “gentle and humble in heart,” we will “find rest for [our] souls,” for his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). To walk in the way of the Torah, to walk with Jesus as the living Word of God, is to be empowered to do that which we cannot do on our own—or when we are addictively in league with the “law of sin” that we express in entrenched, institutionalized patterns of injustice in our lives together.

Taken together, today’s scripture readings testify that a vision of a just and peaceful creation—and the resistance to that vision—are both collectively negotiated. The current climate crisis only intensifies an awareness that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul are calling us not to an individual escape from the tensions of this world, but to living together from the power of peace that cannot be broken by—but can begin to crumble—the powers that sustain collective paths to destruction.

What deeper corporate call to repentance have we ever had than one that asks us to reorient our everyday material world so that we can live more lightly on the planet—so that all species can keep breathing? The call is corporate because it requires wide-scale technological transformation—not simply a collection of individual choices to reduce, reuse, or recycle. Only government policies will enable the particular “monumental shifts historians call ‘energy transitions’” away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Although the shift is more possible and affordable today than it was ten years ago, we still need $800 billion of “investment in renewables . . . each year until 2050 for the world to be on course for less than 2ºC of warming.” And politicized rationalizations for a failure to invest persist—such as in the decision of the Trump administration to roll back EPA monitoring of air pollution in the name of not overburdening companies amid the pandemic. (Quotes are from “Not-so-slow burn: The world’s energy system must be completely transformed,” The Economist, 5-23-20, https://www.economist.com/schools-brief/2020/05/23/the-worlds-energy-system-must-be-transformed-completely).

In the summer of 2020, maybe we can draw ecojustice inspiration from two places we can perceive the Spirit’s breathing today in winds of swift collective change: through our global calls to let fellow human beings breathe, by preventing deaths from the coronavirus whose symptom is difficulty breathing, as well as deaths by racist ways of policing that manifest in unnecessarily suffocating or killing people of color. Responses to both the pandemic and racist police brutality have found expression in a global sensibility. We have watched ourselves transform the texture of our social relations almost overnight through lockdowns and social distancing. We have witnessed a sudden surge in multiracial protests around the world demanding an end to systemic racism—sparked by the humble witness of 17 year old Darnella Frazier using her cell phone to film a Minneapolis police officer suffocating George Floyd.

Frazier is riding a donkey against the war horses of systemic racism in policing, as Greta Thunberg has done against the more invisible resistance of governments to enacting the kinds of rapidly intensive changes in energy infrastructure that we need to mitigate the disaster of climate change. Like Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem amid Passover crowds, both Frazier and Thunberg have cheering crowds attending them and the vision to which they bear witness. Both also come up against rationalizations for the status quo, and efforts to dismiss them or their prophetic messages.

The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, like the 2019 school walkouts for climate change, express an eschatological vision—a glimpse that another way of being is globally contagious and possible, and grounded in a more accurate vision of our shared humanity and planetary condition. We stand with Zechariah in our capacity to behold human beings—and our belonging to creation—without the distortion of a kyriarchical hunger for power over resources and people.

But as Jesus and Paul suggest in today’s readings, those who stand with Zechariah come up against the subtle war horses of minimization and rationalization that prevent meaningful policy changes, be they about the environment, racism, or public health. On these fronts, to take on the yoke of Jesus is to engage in both the humbling inner soul-searching and the persistent collective organizing that address each of these manifestations of sin. Then indeed “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”—or by her “children” (Matthew 11:19).

Dr. Amy Carr
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

Sunday June 25 – July 2 in Year A (Mundahl)

Fake News Tom Mundahl reflects on the alternative.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 26 – July 2, Year A (2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

While there have always been questions about the accuracy of journalism, only in the past few years have charges of “fake news” and adherence to“alternative facts” gained prominence.  This development is chillingly reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984, which begins “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (Signet Classic, 1949, p. 5). Immediately we recognize that we are entering a world where the very idea of truth is called into question. Instead, everyone lives off-balance in a political culture whose creed is “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength” (Orwell, p. 17).

Linguist Winston Smith soon realizes he lives in a society based on raw power, not truthful information. “Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy” (Orwell, 69).  Even though Orwell’s Oceania is fictional, it is easy to see how much — with the denial of climate science and lies about the danger of the novel coronavirus — it resembles our own. This very question of truthfulness also was central to one of the most dramatic episodes of Jeremiah’s life — his conflict with the prophet Hananiah.

This conflict and its background plays out in Jeremiah 27:1-11 and the entirety of chapter 28. In order to help the assembly to comprehend the appointed First Reading (28:5-9), the lector needs to read this narrative whole or employ a storytelling approach. Because we are once again dealing with the early events leading to the 587 BCE siege of Jerusalem, the focus is on grief, for we are witnessing the end of Judah as a self-determining polity. Terence Fretheim is right in calling this nothing less than God’s mourning a dead child (The Suffering God, Fortress, 1984, pp. 132-136). Into this unfolding grief comes another prophet, Hananiah with news too good to be true.

The essential facts are these: from 604 BCE, Babylon had controlled Judean life, and to demonstrate that power had kidnapped King Jeconiah and “borrowed” precious artifacts from the Temple. This was in addition to demanding substantial annual tribute. By 594/593 BCE, several tribute-paying kingdoms were beginning to consider revolt in the form of stopping these payments of “protection money.” In this context the prophetic word came to Jeremiah instructing him to make an ox-yoke to wear and say to the leaders of nations contemplating rebellion, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever I please. Now I have given all these lands into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him even the wild animals of the field to serve him” (Jeremiah 27:4-6). The ox-yoke symbolizes just that servitude.

Into this volatile situation comes Hananiah with a completely contrary message sure to please Judean leaders: “Thus says the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.  Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah….” (Jeremiah 28:2-4a). Who is the true prophet and who is peddling fake news?

Jeremiah responds without a trace of defensiveness.  “Amen! May the LORD do so, may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied…. “(Jeremiah 28:6). But then he goes on to say, in effect, that prophecy is neither wish-fulfillment nor propaganda.  Prophets are sent when there is a need, not as official cheerleaders.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Jeremiah spoke to a people with glazed eyes that looked and did not see.  They were so encased in their own world of fantasy that they were stupid and undiscerning. And so the numbness was not broken and they continued in their fantasy world” (The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress, 2001, p. 55).

By the time a scroll of Jeremiah was available, everyone knew that Jeremiah’s words were authentic; after all, there is no “Book of Hananiah.”  Then why go into the detail of Hananiah’s destruction of Jeremiah’s yoke (Jeremiah 28 :10) and the fact that although he had prophesied only two more years of Nebuchadnezzar’s dominance, in exactly two months Hananiah was dead?  Clements answers, “No doubt many prophets like Hananiah, offering the same spurious appeal, were still known to the book’s readers. Hananiah’s grim fate was to be a warning to them” (Jeremiah, John Knox, 1988, p. 167). There was a price to be paid for pushing “fake news.” When the choice is between power and truth, Jeremiah would concur with Orwell: truth is the loser.

This is well documented in the case of climate science. In July of 1977, James Black, an Exxon senior scientist, addressing a conclave of top scientists at the energy corporations’ New York headquarters, warned that there is a growing scientific consensus that carbon dioxide release is warming the planet in ways that would have profound impacts on the ecosystem (Bill McKibben, Falter, Henry Holt, 2019, p. 72). This was ten years before James Hansen’s testimony before the Senate, often considered the first warning of what was then called “the Greenhouse Effect.” Exxon continued to do research which confirmed these findings. How were these findings used by the richest company producing the most valuable substance on earth? The next year, 1978, one Exxon executive said, “This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefitting mankind” (McKibben, p. 75).

As we well know, this did not happen.  Instead, looking to protect profits, Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Amoco and others joined forces to form the so-called “Global Climate Coalition,” using their economic power to claim falsely that there was “another side” to a set of scientific findings and research. Essentially, they were following the tobacco industry’s playbook, basing “fake science” on another widespread addiction, this time not to nicotine but to carbon fuels. As we suffer the effects of forty years of relatively unabated carbon emission with the floods, fires, heat waves and diseases of the climate crisis, it is difficult to disagree with McKibben’s conclusion that this is “the most consequential cover-up in human history” (McKibben, p. 73).

Paul writes to make sure that there are no “cover-ups” when it comes to the significance of baptism. Baptism means belonging to a new creation of truth and justice. “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness (literally, “injustice”), but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness (“justice”) (Romans 6:13). Therefore, “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4) provides a communal “crap detector” helping us to discern falsehood. For this is not a mere change of opinion.  As Ernst Kasemann reminds us, “With baptism a change of lordship has been effected” (Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 179).

It follows that the extensive discussion of sin in this text denotes a power that seeks allegiance, not a laundry list of offenses.  As a power, sin lures us to a life of self-sufficient finitude: trust in our own strength, military power, economic growth, and especially technology. As Laszlo Foldenyi suggests in his book, Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears (Yale, 2020), “The true god of the modern age is technology; we are tremendously, imperially successful, but we have ‘murdered God’ with our ambition. And it is none other than our drive to find an answer to everything. When we began to seek solutions for things for which there are clearly no solutions, this ambition became transformed into hubris” (quoted in James Wood, “In From the Cold,” review essay, The New Yorker, June 1, 2020, p. 65).

Ironically, the same technology that has allowed diverse peoples of the earth to get to know one another, communicate instantly, and cure diseases previously thought of as “death sentences,” has also created the climate crisis and conditions favorable for new zoonotic pandemics. And, the unequal distribution of technology’s benefits has been an important factor leading to the racial roadblock we are experience today.

Not only that, but “progress” in technology carries the risk of changing the very meaning of truth. Instead of the storytelling, poetry, and “community history” genres familiar from the scriptures, new industrial technology produced what Walter Benjamin called information (we would include digital data) as the organizing center of capitalist culture. While information claims to be verifiable, all that is really necessary, argues Benjamin, is that it seems “socially plausible”(The Storyteller, New York Review Books, 2019, pp. 53-54). That low standard has paved the way for propaganda and advertising messages whose only plausibility is the reaction of the message’s recipients. To counter the constant dangers of the waves of media washing over us, the community of faith still remains committed to storytelling, washing, and eating together in the presence of the One who “makes room” for truth that is heard, touched,  shared, and lived out.

It is this sharing which is central to this week’s Gospel Reading. Although Matthew 10 is an extensive teaching block aimed primarily at training disciples, it clearly applies to all people of faith who by baptism share this calling in their own unique circumstances. If Matthew is the “Emmanuel Gospel” celebrating Jesus as “God with us,” we participate in this process by being “with others.” The act of receiving and extending hospitality provides an experience of deep connection. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).  By welcoming others, what could be mere words is authenticated; no “fake good news” here.

This powerful sense of hospitality follows directly from the verse preceding our text: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it” (Matthew 10:39). The baptismal grace that takes us from the font to the street frees us to “empty ourselves” (Philippians 2:5-11) through hospitality, not only to familiar figures of piety (prophets and the righteous), but to those outside the “lines,” even to the whole of creation. The “reward” is realized not only at the fulfillment of all things, but with the increasing fullness of life diversity brings (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2000, p. 246). This is concretized in the beautiful image — “a cup of cold water” (Matthew 10:42).

Unfortunately, in a divided and warming world, a cup of cold, potable water is rarer than we often think.  Even in rich countries like the US, cities like Flint, MI, and Newark, NJ, have struggled with lead in tap water which will impair children for a lifetime. Time will bring more instances to light, most based on inequity in distribution of resources, often based on race. Similarly, in the so-called developing world, easily available water for drinking and irrigation is a common problem.

At a recent Global Earth Repair Conference, one of the speakers was Rajendra Singh, a medical doctor carving out a successful career. One day Singh was challenged by an indigenous villager who told him that if he really wanted to help the villagers he would “bring them water” (Rob Lewis, “Walking to the Restoration,” Dark Mountain, Issue 17, Spring 2020, p. 7). This farmer went on to explain the old methods of harvesting rains, practices discouraged over a century and a half of the British Raj. Rains were held for use, not with giant dams, but with traditional catchments called johads. “Once held, the water would drain down, recharging aquifers, feeding vegetation and calling back lost weather patterns.” In time, soil health was improved, flooding was moderated, and the regional climate cooled by 2 degrees C. (Was British standard water management “fake news?”)

This is a difficult time for truth. A young playwright, Heather Christian, complained recently, “I feel like we are bombarded with information, but none of it feels right any more…facts don’t carry weight any more. And this, for me, personally, has driven me to the edge” (NPR Morning Edition, June 9, 2020). 1984‘s Winston Smith was also driven to the edge and beyond during his months of interrogation in the Ministry of Truth. But one day he felt a new sense of peace as he unconsciously doodled in the dust of his table 2 + 2 = 5 (Orwell, p. 239).  It was only a short step to total surrender to all that was false. Now, writes Orwell, “he loved Big Brother” (Orwell, p. 245).

There is no surrender as the congregation begins to gather in person around the central symbols of bath, meal, and story, where we discern together what we have called “the word of truth.” The gift is free, yet think of the price paid by Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus for bearing it. Falsehood, “fake news,” and deception are popular, profitable, and politically appealing. But not among us.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
tmundahl@gmail.com

Sunday June 19-25 in Year A (Mundahl)

It Can’t Happen Here Tom Mundahl reflects on prophetic voice and lament.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 19-25, Year A (2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:7-10 (11-15) 16-18
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

When I read Camus’ novel The Plague during my freshman year in college, it never occurred to me that I would live to see a global pandemic. Nor did I expect that this novel would describe so accurately our reaction to this “new plague.” Here is Camus providing a picture of how the residents of the Algerian city of Oran first met this brewing disaster.

“Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.  They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views.  How should they have thought of anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.  They fancied    themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences” (Modern Library, 1948, pp. 34-35).

Perhaps no culture has been trapped by the illusions of freedom from necessity and exceptionalism as ours. This has not been helped by the ineptness of current political leadership in understanding that the federal government has leadership responsibilities in responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic. There has been a naive assumption of special American “immunity” — it can’t happen here.

But there is a corollary to this magical thinking as we move from political culture to personal life: “it can’t happen here” becomes “it can’t happen to me.” As a parish pastor working with hospice programs, I have witnessed first-hand just how powerful the fear and denial of death can be. From the preference for terms like “passed away,” which now has been shortened to “passed,” to the medical establishment’s preference for jargon like “expired,” it is clear how very frightening it is to say, “she died.”  After organizing several discussion groups on “Death and Dying” and “Grieving Together,” it has even become evident that one of the ulterior motives for being involved with these topics may even be “finding a way out.” It is “one out of one except me.” And, as all who work for ecojustice know, everything we have concluded about the magical thinking surrounding Covid-19 and personal mortality applies to the threat of the climate crisis. It even applies to systemic racism, where despite no racist bones ever admitted personally, people of color die as a result of government action or inaction at a shockingly higher rate.

Jeremiah also struggled against living in illusion. Only for him, illusion had a royal imprimatur and even the appearance of divine sanction. Beginning with Solomon, kings had ignored the Exodus tradition, replacing the “manna” sense of “just enough” (Exodus 16:18) with the economics of affluence and a temple-based religion even Egyptians would be proud of (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress, 2001, pp. 31-32).  Building projects, military defeats, the rise first of Assyria, then Babylon, led to religious syncretism which  King Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms couldn’t quell. It was a time that required prophets.

That living out the prophetic vocation was no easy task is made clear from reading Jeremiah. In fact, making sense of the lament which constitutes our First Lesson requires that the lector do some storytelling, summarizing the human slaughter that went on in the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna), the instructions to break an earthenware jug to show the fate of Judah, and Jeremiah’s arrest by Pashhur, the head of the Temple’s secret police (Jeremiah 19:1-20:6). Only then can this lament make sense.

It is ironic that as part of his call to be a prophet Jeremiah is promised that he will be an “overseer of the nations” (Jeremiah 1:10, Hebrew text). Being arrested by a mere “overseer” of the temple police must have been the last straw (John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible, 1965, p. 132). No wonder his lament is filled with anger at the One who called him with generous promises, most of which now appear empty. Jeremiah complains that he was both seduced and overpowered, and the results of his work are nowhere to be seen (Jeremiah 20:7). “For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (Jeremiah 20: 8).

Still there is power in his call.  Even when he has had enough, he cannot keep from prophesying. Deep down, far beyond any possible level of comfort, there is a barely-conscious confidence that “the LORD is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail” (Jeremiah 20:11).

Yet, there is also power in a royal theology so confident of its unique possession of divine support that it can no longer hear a prophetic voice. Since the regime possesses an “eternal” institutional truth through the monarch, real change is not necessary; it is only a matter of problem-solving and management. It is no surprise that Jeremiah’s “street theater,” using pottery to depict Judah’s future, is unthinkable and cannot be tolerated. It violates an “official religion of optimism” (Brueggemann, p. 37). There is not even a momentary question whether this message might be the word of the LORD. The real problem is Jeremiah, who must be dealt with by a beating  and humiliating time in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:2).

That Judah with its royal theology is unable to hear or see the truth Jeremiah brings cannot help but feel eerily familiar to us. While we claim to have outgrown royalty, the current form of American exceptionalism, mixed with a form of patriotism that claims a perverse form of Christian nationalism as a foundational element, functions similarly to block discussion and action to bring real change.  “Change,” isn’t that what the freighted biblical term, “repentance,” really means?

What stiffens Jeremiah’s audience to reject this turn-around and embrace magical thinking,  preventing them from seeing the way things really are?  Put simply, it is fear of death, the death of the religio-political system they rely on for meaning, economic security, and physical safety. Like all prophets, because he tells an inconvenient truth, he is dangerous.  To them, what Jeremiah’s words and street theater point to can’t happen here.

In the U.S. the results of the global pandemic, the reality of the climate crisis, and the seemingly endless level of racist police brutality threaten a culture based on endless economic growth requiring the exploitation of natural resources and inequality.  Despite claiming to be a culture honoring science, the warnings of epidemiologists (whose work has been underfunded) and even fine science writers like Laurie Garret (The Coming Plague, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995) and David Quammen (Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, Norton, 2012) have too often been ignored. While acceptance of climate science has grown in the past five years — especially on local and state levels — implementation of policy on the national level has been undermined by the current administration which embraces the “royal theology” of growth at any cost. Similarly, the racial inequality so obvious in the U.S. has been exploited as politically advantageous. As I write, sections of the Twin Cities, my home, are burning.

Like Jeremiah, we ask: why this resistance to truth? Much of the answer lies in our bondage to finding security and identity through possession (cf. Arthur McGill, Death and Life — An American Theology, Fortress, 1987, p. 54).  Whether it is property, wealth, glamour, or intellectual achievement, what we control gives us the illusion of safety and integrity. That is equally the case on the societal level where Gross Domestic Product, a Defense Department budget larger than the next ten countries and necessary to support 800 military bases worldwide, and a massive advertising industry to keep the “consumer faith,” all serve to promote what we have been led to believe is our “well-being.” The results are anything but that — a climate crisis, community and family disintegration, and always the search for scapegoats to bear the blame for the inevitable failure of life lived this way.

So we join Jeremiah in his lament, especially as we consider Psalm 69. Unfortunately, the committee responsible for the Revised Common Lectionary has cut the heart out of this powerful lament.  During this time of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial upheaval, we need also to hear the beginning cry:

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God (Psalm 69: 1-3).

Why this need? By sharing in lament, our grief, pain, and the threat of chaos are transformed into language. And as we are reminded by the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a), just as God spoke all into existence, so something new and creative occurs when we join our speech and song (Current hymnals may feature a section of “hymns of lament,” e.g. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 697-704). This communal voice assures us we are never cut off from holy presence. As poet Gregory Orr contends, “words make worlds” (On Being, American Public Radio, May 31, 2020).

It is also important to honor Psalm 69 because traditionally it has been associated with Jeremiah  (James L. Mays, Psalms, John Knox, 1994, p. 232).  Not only does the lament echo Jeremiah’s language, but the details resonate with his experience of being thrown into the “deep mire” (Psalm 69:2) at the bottom of a Judean cistern (Jeremiah 38:6). Cut off from the support of family (Psalm 69:8) and the larger community, he can only look to God’s steadfast love and mercy (Psalm 69:16).

The freedom to grieve and lament together is a gift of shared faith. Without that, humankind is reduced to living by possession as a hedge against anxiety and fear of death. Paul writes to make it crystal clear that “God is the enemy of all life by possession” (McGill, 54). Of course, what is meant here is the power of sin that is washed away by word and water in baptism. In baptism, death, the very reason we surround ourselves with what we convince ourselves that we control, is central.  Paul’s rhetoric shows his sensitivity to just how shocking this is: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3) It is the end of allegiance to empires, whether Roman or the tottering system of contemporary consumer capitalism that seems bent on destroying this green earth. Baptismal faith removes the scales from our eyes to see, yes, it is happening here.

But out of this death comes a share of resurrection that launches “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). As Ernst Kasemann claims, baptism actualizes the cross-resurrection event so that “walking in newness of life” becomes “participation in the reign of Christ” (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 168). This changes our fundamental identity and “pledges” our first allegiance to another “community.” Instead of living by possession, we are freed together to live by gift, especially as we are continually recharged by what Kasemann calls “a constant return to baptism” (Kasemann, p. 163).

Wendell Berry describes this more simply in one of his “Mad Farmer” poems, where he suggests “practice resurrection” (The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 1998, p. 87). Our Gospel Reading reminds us just how costly this can be. Living by gift, nourishing the earth, and practicing resurrection are guaranteed to bring opposition. It will happen here. This text makes it clear that those who “practice resurrection”will be maligned (Matthew 10:25), will know the division of families (10:34-37), and, as they endure, will know the cross intimately. Yet the promise persists: “Those who find their life (live by possession) will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it” (Matthew 10:39). During this time of pandemic, racial oppression, and climate crisis, lament offers a path to this discovery.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
tmundahl@gmail.com

Preaching on Creation: Sunday June 12-18 in Year A (Mundahl)

A Community to Serve the Whole Earth Tom Mundahl reflects on support, endurance, and hope for the challenges we face.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 12-18, Year A (2020, 2023)

Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

The arrival of the novel coronavirus has shaken our culture to the foundations. In a matter of a few months, trust in endless economic expansion and progress has all but disappeared. The vaunted American medical system — the “best in the world” — has been unmasked as a disorganized boutique  set of arrangements designed to treat illness among the economically advantaged, not a resilient institution designed to provide public health for all. And the food system with its deadly and exploitative meat processing plants has not only sickened its workers and failed those in animal husbandry; it has led to search for new models.  No wonder we hear discussions of “the collapse complex societies” and how to live through a “long emergency.”

This is all reminiscent of the Epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where the now-convicted murderer, Raskolnikov, as he begins his seven years of hard labor in Siberia, dreams that a pandemic plague had killed nearly all humans, leaving those remaining badly shaken. “Here and there people would band together, agree among themselves to do something, swear never to part — but immediately begin something completely different from what they had just suggested, begin accusing one another and fighting….” (New York, Vintage, 1992, Pevear and Volokhonsky, trans., p. 547).

Among the multitude of dangers described by the author and mirrored in our current situation is the shredding of all that binds community.  This week’s readings focus on just that question.  In the face of threats to disintegration: what is the purpose of the faith community and what holds it together?

Too often creation accounts have been dismissed as mere stage scenery providing the setting for what really matters, the historical drama of the Exodus.  Close attention to the Book of Exodus, however, shows how closely creation and liberation from Egypt’s oppression are connected. As Terence Fretheim suggests, “The deliverance of Israel is ultimately for the sake of all creation” (Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 13). In fact, the harrowing narrative of crossing the sea on “dry land” points directly to Genesis 1:9-10 with its separation of water and dry land.

In fact, what happens at Sinai can only be understood as an affirmation of the goodness of creation, in sharp contrast with Pharoah’s death-dealing use of the Hebrew slaves as mere instruments of production. This suggests that the Sinai Covenant assumes both the coherence of creation’s interdependence and the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12 and 17). What’s more, any new Torah is preceded by a reminder of gracious dealing: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). Just as a mother eagle both prods eaglets to try their wings, rescuing the chick when flight fails, so the Creator may be trusted.

Again, the basis of this echo of the Abrahamic promises, “you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples,” is anchored by creation: “indeed, the whole earth is mine” (Exodus 19:5). But this election is rooted in generous purpose. “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” ( Exodus 19:6). While the notion of “priesthood” may seem alien to us, it is central to biblical thinking, especially the tradition that the Jerusalem temple is where heaven and earth meet.

More helpful today is the Orthodox view where the role of the priest is to lead worshipers in “lifting up our hearts” to God so that the earth can be transfigured.  As Norman Wirzba writes, “When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation…so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as a blessing (another priestly function)” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2019, p. 264).  As all creation is lifted up, persons may no longer can be seen as mere “machine parts” and the fruits of creation become gifts, not commodities. So even before the Torah is given, we see that “Israel is commissioned to be God’s people on behalf of the earth which is God’s” (Fretheim, p. 212).

Just as all creation is “lifted up” in priestly service, so humankind recognizes that we join the community of all creation in continuous worship. Psalm 100 makes this clear, for as the place of worship is entered, praise is unison.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing (Psalm 100:1-2).

Here the psalmist reminds us that there can be no worship apart from the sabbath community of interdependent creatures whose highest priestly function is never-ending praise (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 319). This is exactly what happens when the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds with their creation affirmations are professed.  We commit ourselves as a community to perform in earth care exactly what we confess.

Initially it may seem that nothing could be further from the notion of priestly service than a gospel reading detailing healing and the sending of disciples. But when we recognize the “compassion” Jesus views the crowds with, we see nothing more than a slightly different form of “lifting up.” Those elevated are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). These are personal problems, to be sure, but also afflictions that cannot be separated from the corruption of the religious elite, the “so-called shepherds,”and Roman oppression of Judea (Warren Carter, Matthew at the Margins, Orbis, 2000, p. 230).

Jesus reframes this as kairos, a time full of opportunity–”the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37). Without a doubt, there is an element of judgment here that cannot be avoided, judgment of the false shepherds and Roman oppressors. But “harvest” is hardly a time for grim judgment alone; it is a time of nourishment and celebration of a new and different kind of empire.  In a commissioning that foreshadows the final sending (Matthew 28:19-20), the named apostles are empowered to heal and spread the news of the new “imperial order.”  It may seem odd that Matthew’s Jesus limits the mission to Israel. But they are the very ones foundering “like sheep without a shepherd.” Beyond that, as we recall from the First Lesson, Israel is the people called to be a blessing to all the earth, the instrument channeling hope to the nations and the whole creation.

The spirit with which Jesus sends the disciples to participate in this harvest festival of care, is further evidenced by the “easy yoke and light burden” Jesus describes (Matthew 11:29-30). Following the seemingly weighty instruction  to “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons,” Jesus reminds the Twelve, “You received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10:8). This new community spawned by compassion, runs on a gift economy.  Just as “the sun rises on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45), so no one earns the benefits of this new creation. For it is as productive as the mysterious seeds which yield ”some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8), and as generous as the vineyard owner who pays a full days’ wages for one hour of work (Matthew 20:1-16).

Another way of describing living out this harvest festival we celebrate and share, the one we have been welcomed to “without payment” (Matthew 10:8) is “peace with God” (Romans 5:1). Too often, while reading Paul–especially Romans–we forget that he is writing about the same realities that occupy our other readings. “Peace with God,” then, is no pale abstraction. It is a result of having been “made right” with God  and is the active participation in the interdependence and care necessary to maintain the “peace–shalom” intended for all.

Just because believers are welcomed into this community graciously through baptism into the cross and resurrection (Romans 6:1-6) and live this out in worship, learning, and care for creation, does not mean that they will be applauded by the dominant culture. Because this culture tends to idolize competitive struggle for wealth with little or no regard for the fate of “the losers,” opposition is guaranteed.  When sisters and brothers live out their calling to join Native American “water protectors” in protesting building an oil pipeline through the Missouri River, they are classified as domestic terrorists. When teenagers of faith follow the lead of Greta Thunberg and commit to the “school strike” to change views and behavior toward the climate crisis, many adults still believe they should “not waste their time, but stick to their studies.”

No wonder Paul responds to the inevitable opposition of those who find their security in wealth, power, and success with the logic of the cross: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:3-5a). Despite how successful our efforts to build ecojustice appear, this endurance –another gift–has its source in openness to God’s trustworthy future, a new creation (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 135).

As we began this essay, we looked at what to all of us just six months ago would have seemed only a nightmare illuminating the troubled psyche of one Rodion Raskolnikov.  As violent as this  dream was, we could hardly have imagined that we would find ourselves in what may be a multi-year pandemic. But we still can learn from this rich, but troubling novel. For as this young Siberian exile recovers, taking a break from producing gypsum he looks across a river and sees the black specks of the yurts of the nomads of the steppe. “There was freedom, there a different people lived, quite unlike those here, there time itself seemed to stop, as if the centuries of Abraham and his flocks had not passed away” (Crime and Punishment, p. 549).

What was Raskolnikov seeing?  Community. Real community based not on the fevered longings  for personal greatness, but on a deep promise, a promise that enables him to hold the hand of his friend, Sonya, for the first time with assured fidelity.  Although we will depend on the best science to focus on the global problems of Covid-19 and the climate crisis, we equally will need resilient and dependable communities to provide support, endurance and hope.  This week’s readings assure us that this is a gift God’s people can provide.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
tmundahl@gmail.com

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Ormseth)

The Story of Jesus the Servant of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the triune God of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

As we noted in our commenting on Jesus Farewell Discourse (see the “Sixth Sunday of Easter” in this series), the issues at stake in the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Church’s first four centuries are all adumbrated in the readings for the last four Sundays of Easter. Jaroslav Pelican summarizes them well:

“the question of unity of the God or monotheism that will be at issue in the church’s conflict with Judaism; the question of how best to define the relationship of the Father and the Son (Spirit or Logos?), which will shape the churches relationship with pagan thought; the status and role of the Holy Spirit, key to linkage with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the bond between redemption and creation that the church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics. (For the basis of this list, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the CatholicTradition (100-600), Vol.1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, p. 172).

The doctrine of the Trinity, in the form of the Nicene Creed, serves to keep the church responsive to these issues. As we have seen, the issues are significant for understanding the Christian concern for care of creation. The bond between redemption and creation was part of our discussion on the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The Holy Spirit figured importantly, of course, in our comment on the Day of Pentecost. And we explored the relationship of the Father and the Son with respect to its significance for the ongoing life of the church in the post-Ascension period. It remains, then, to take up the issue of the unity of God or monotheism, as it also bears upon our concern for the care of creation.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the tradition’s guarantee that the story of Jesus belongs as part and parcel of the story of Israel’s God, who, as our first reading reminds us, is confessed to be the creator of all things. Thus the Sunday of the Holy Trinity provides occasion for a recapitulation of the narrative of the Gospel of the Servant of Creation, whose life and mission we have followed through the readings for the seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter. Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, perhaps even the authority and power of this God of creation? And if so, what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times?

The Gospel of the Servant of Creation which we have constructed on the foundation of lections from the Seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter begins with that “creational moment” of Jesus’ baptism, when the water “falls away from Jesus’ dripping body, the heavens open, and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending and alighting upon him like a dove.” Rising from gently troubled waters, he hears “the voice of the Creator, speaking over the waters as at the beginning of creation.” This is the one God calls “my servant. . . my chosen,” the one who will bring forth justice to the nations. He will see waters far more violently troubled, including those of our time stirred up by the changing of Earth’s climate. If it is the church’s expectation that Jesus will bring justice to all the Earth, will he bring justice also to those troubled waters? (See Matthew 3:13-7; Isaiah 42:1-9).

So, from the outset, the story of Jesus is about this “trinity”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and it is about the care for creation of this triune God. Instructed by the Spirit, John the Baptist hails this Son as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” His death, we have noted, will become “an icon of God’s redemptive co-suffering with all sentient life, as well as with the victims of social competition” (Second Sunday after the Epiphany). He will call as his first disciples fishermen who are experienced with life at the edge of the wilderness, who are familiar with imperial strategies to dominate the economies of the Earth’s lands and seas and who will be able to envision ‘new ways of living in and with the non-human creation,’ ways that bring ‘the necessity of breaking the body of creation for our own needs, and for the needs of the future, humbly into our priesthood’” of the creation (Third Sunday After the Epiphany). Following the way first taken by Moses, he will ascend a mountain to teach these disciples; as representative of the ecology of the earth, the mountain attends to that teaching with an ear for wisdom that “tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of a biotic community”—i.e. for a “land ethic” that might truly “constitute justice for the whole creation.”

The mountain is not disappointed, for here is teaching that buoys the spirit of people who, in our time, care passionately about an Earth in deep distress and who genuinely mourn its destruction. Jesus blesses those who give place to others, a fundamental principle of ecological awareness; and he also blesses those who live according to the purposes their Creator has installed within their very nature. The mountain rejoices to hear him reject the “bad religion in which ‘people commit sins and animals pay the price’ in favor of the sacrifice of love that overcomes the ‘pattern of sin endlessly repeated’ of taking ‘creation not as a gift but as a violence—either the violence of order or the violence of chaos—an aboriginal strife that must be governed; for to take violence as inescapable is to make of violence a moral and a civic duty” (Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany). As “salt for the earth” and “light of the world,” his followers will “carry out God’s dynamically unfolding purposes for the whole creation until the end of time” (Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany). With an ear for Moses’ admonition to “choose life,” Jesus prepares to descend the mountain of wisdom and walk the plains of Galilee with his disciples, whom he gathers as he goes; he will lead them in a “demonstration project of the power of God’s love” lived out in a community of relationships that include all that God loves, the whole creation (Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany). He steels them for what lies ahead by envisioning for them the possibility that they might not only love what God loves, but love as God loves: “without expectation of reciprocity, without self-interested conditions . . . without qualifying distinctions”  (Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany).

With a full complement of eight Sundays, the extended season of Epiphany provided the occasion for an excursus at this last point, namely, on the real difficulties humans face in realizing such unconditioned, self-giving love for others, especially given our existential anxiety concerning the availability of the material resources we feel we need to sustain our lives. Noting that the texts implied a difference in the way God values human and non-human creatures, we asked, “Granted that God desires human flourishing . . . does this desire trump God’s concern for the flourishing of the non-human “other” creation?” Jesus would have us “not worry;” and so he assures us that God does indeed know that we need food, drink, clothes and shelter. Yet the creation provides for neither human nor other creatures’ flourishing consistently; our anxiety responds to a “deep insufficiency” that is “built into nature’s creative process.” Nevertheless, Jesus would have us refuse the master of wealth in favor of obedience to God—and for good reason from the perspective of the care of creation. For in its multiple aspects, the pursuit of wealth is easily the chief “driver of environmental deterioration,” in James Gustave Speth’s apt characterization.

This conversation about serving wealth, we noted, again took place in the presence of mountains, our ecological representative of the creation. Obviously, much is at stake in that conversation, for them and for their co-creatures. And indeed, it is fascinating to see how the struggle between these rival loyalties plays out in the culmination of Jesus’ story, to the benefit or to the adversity of the creation. The story from this point moves, as it were, from mountain to mountain: first to Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration; then, by way of the observance of Ash Wednesday, to the ecologically provocative plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains,” which attends the people’s abandonment of the covenant; to the mountain of temptation in the wilderness; and so eventually to the conflict with the religious and political leaders on Mount Zion. These earthly witnesses to Jesus’ passage through the land provide consistent testimony regarding the importance of this story for the creation.  What happened to Jesus on Tabor, we noted, is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the “sign of things to come for the whole creation.” As the concerns of the disciples about status and power in the kingdom of God fall away, the Transfiguration draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world” to which the mountain’s “landscape of accessible and gentle beauty” invites them (Transfiguration of our Lord). The “blackness upon the mountains” of the text from the prophet Joel read on Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, prompts a call for repentance in our contemporary situation for the environmental crisis of our time, in response to God’s promise to restore the people to “the life and well-being that God intended for the creation” (Ash Wednesday).

The issues at stake here are focused most sharply, however, when the Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life,” leads Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” We summed up the significance of their confrontation this way: considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations exhibit: one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and three, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the Earth.  These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to Earth. Wilderness is respected as a sanctuary for the non-human creation; the relationship of humans to non-human neighbors on the turf they share is characterized by self-limitation within the bounds of creation and regard for “otherkind.”

These eco-friendly decisions are not merely co-incidental bi-products of Jesus’ more obvious concern to be obedient to the will of God, we argued. When read in the context of the story of human temptation from Genesis 2 and 3, the account of the temptation shows that what Jesus does for God in his temptations is what God intended humans to do in and for the creation. “To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God.” In the struggle that is here joined between the dominion of life and the dominion of death, Jesus clearly chooses the dominion of life (First Sunday of Lent).

He will be faithful to that choice on his way to Mount Zion. As we saw in the readings for the Sundays of Lent, his words and actions on the way to Jerusalem fill out his role as Servant of Creation. In his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus evoked the power of the Holy Spirit who makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. In his conversation with the woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob, Jesus “brought ‘living water,’ i.e. water with Spirit, to heal the alienation of the woman from her neighbors and of Samaritans from Jews, but also to show how water can serve as the means for reconciliation of all things everywhere on this blue planet.” And with his healing of the man born blind, Jesus practiced what humans are for, serving God by serving the creation, while exposing the blindness of the Pharisees, who refused to see in his healing a truly holy use of water that would contribute to the flourishing of all God’s creatures. And even in the face of the death of his dear friend Lazarus, his actions were governed by what we have come to call the rule of the servant of God’s creation: “What he does is always shaped and determined. . , not by his own very human desires and loves, but by what God knows the world needs, what God wants for the world God so loves” (Fifth Sunday in Lent). This is true to the end of Jesus’ life. Even in his confrontation with the powers of temple and empire, his actions are not about what he wants, but about “what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation” (Passion Sunday).

As we proclaimed on reading the lections for the Resurrection of Our Lord, this service to creation is vindicated by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The power of death’s dominion has been broken, even though not driven from Earth. So the meaning of the resurrection has to be about more than vindication. That is to say that the resurrection is also a first demonstration of the restoration of creation, of the “new creation.” A bulwark against all later attempts to “spiritualize” the meaning of the Resurrection, the readings for the Sundays of Easter consistently exhibit the conviction that Jesus’ service to the creation is for its restoration and perfection, not its abandonment. The new creation is already begun, and “is made manifest as the Risen Lord comes to the community of faith in the breaking of bread” (Fourth Sunday of Easter). As Risen Lord, Jesus provides sustenance in a meal that models human flourishing in the context of a restored creation, for which he will both locate place and provide way, truth and life in the company of his Father, the Creator of all things. As we wrote in summary comment on the readings for the post-ascension Seventh Sunday of Easter:

Jesus is the servant of Philippians 2 who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself; now he is “highly exalted” so that, in the company of the creator God of Israel, at his name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This is the Word who glorified the Father “on Earth by finishing the work” that the Father gave him to do; the glory he had “from before the world existed” has now been restored (John 17:5). And in light of our reading of the Lenten and Easter lectionary, it is the servant of God whose work was to do his Father’s will in faithful obedience to the rule of the servant of creation, who now ascends to his Father and regains access to the Father’s creative power. Nevertheless, their mutually shared glory and equality means that the exalted Jesus will still do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus might have found, from time to time, more desirable and “wise,” from a human point of view (Seventh Sunday of Easter).

It is the reality of this New Creation that the church experiences and continues to foster, as we enter more deeply into the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the weeks of the season of Pentecost to come, we will explore the fruits, both early and late, of this New Creation.

Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, and even the authority and power of this God of creation? On the basis of this narrative, we have to answer “yes”—decidedly so! And it is consistent with this judgment that in the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday that the disciples went “to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, to receive the great commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’” (Matthew 28:18). Again, the mountain is the ecologically responsible witness. And Jesus is the one to whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given,” meaning thereby that he is responsible for all thing contained within the cosmos. His is “the dominion,” which, in Greek, is the same word as “authority,” Warren Carter notes (in Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 551) that both the reading from Genesis and the reading from Psalm 8 remind us that what was granted to humankind in the beginning of creation was the responsibility to care for the needs of all the non-human creations, both wild and domestic, both on land and in the sea. Jesus is the human image of God, who, as we suggested in our comment on the readings for Name of Jesus in the Season of Christmas, “does what humans were created to do: care for Earth by exercising their God-given powers of mind and spirit to the benefit of all creation” (Name of Jesus).

Then what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times? The text tells us that when the disciples saw him, some worshiped him, but others doubted. There is room in this story for those who have difficulty accepting Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. Certainly, misunderstandings and misapplications of the claim of “dominion” have contributed to a resistance to accept Jesus on the part of advocates for Earth. (For our brief discussion of this issue, as raised by cultural historian Lynn White, see our comment on the Name of Jesus.) Of deeper and more general significance, perhaps, is what Norman Wirzba describes as the “culture as denial of creation.” The problem, he suggests, is that in modern culture, we no longer share what he calls “the experience of creation:”

Though many people still profess a vague belief in a higher power that created the universe, there are almost no signs indicating that people have thought seriously about themselves as created being enmeshed in a common redemptive fate with the rest of the created order and that this belief should have any effect in practical, day-to-day decision-making. For the most part, our assumptions about reality, its ontological status, reflect modern scientific, economic, and technological views that place humanity and its interests over and against the natural world. Nature, rather than being the realm of God’s creative work and plan, the object of God’s good pleasure, is the foil for human technique and desire (Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 62).

Thus, it is important that we get “clear about how changing concrete and social conditions mitigate or promote our capacity for attention, care, and responsibility—all virtues central to the divinely mandated vocation that we till and keep the earth,” and seek understanding of “those features of modern life that compromise our experience of the world as creation and thus distort our vocations as servants of it” (Ibid., p. 64).

First on the list of Wirzba’s culprits is the demise in modern culture of the practice of an allegorical method for the interpretation of scripture. “Allegorical interpretation,” he observes, “reflected a mental milieu in which words, the world, and God together formed a whole through which meaning and sense could circulate.” Collapse of this approach was due, not to the influence of an alien force of secularization, as one might think, but rather to the efforts of faithful “Protestant reformers to “establish the authority of scripture in terms of its literal and historical sense.” Nonetheless, the loss to the faith was real. As Wirzba explains, “allegory presupposes that the whole of reality forms an organic unity in which humans, because they participate in the material and spiritual realms, play an important role. As creatures made in the image of God we are exemplars, a microcosm of the universe, and thus form a bridge or conduit that mediates this world and the divine intention.”

The combination of the readings from Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, we might note, provided authorization for this view. Faithful understanding is part of the dominion given, lost, and restored (Ibid., p. 66). When on nominalist epistemological grounds, this linkage no longer made sense, both God and the human being were liberated from its constraints and responsibilities: God becomes an “inscrutable, unpredictable being, massively large and powerful, that exists, if God exists at all, beyond this life and world.” Humanity was left to construct life’s meaning on its own, and the world of things was demoted to the status of objects for human manipulation. “Whereas premodern cultures understood value to be embedded within the world, the modern mind separated fact and value, housing the former in an objective world and the latter in a form-giving subject. The sense of the world as creation, as ordered in terms of a divine plan, is largely gone” (Ibid, p.68-70).

Other factors in this “loss of creation,” according to Wirzba, include the “eclipse of agrarian life,” which comes as a result of the fact that as the practice of farming has been industrialized. Technology more generally transforms our access to the reality of the world from one of participatory engagement to a spectator observer of “bits of data, which means that the context for understanding is limited to the moment of the glance” (Ibid., p. 79). “The modern technological mind, in short, destroys the sacred, divests the world of its sanctity or integrity, since its overriding goal is to transform the world into means for decidedly human ends” (Ibid., p. 81). Our culture has become abstract:  “interdependencies are either forgotten, denied, or scorned, the assumption being that persons float above their life-giving context, dipping in and out as consumption patterns dictate” (Ibid., p. 85). The processes that sustain human life are increasingly severed from the processes of the earth, as money becomes the medium for all interaction between them.

And finally, the meaning of creation is made difficult by “the growing irrelevance of God:” As we have become controllers of our own fate, God has simply become an unnecessary hypothesis. We, rather than God, run the world. Talk of God as a creator who is intimately and concernfully involved in the daily affairs of existence is simply quaint, a reflection of the refusal to deal with the naturalistic assumptions of modern science. How, then, can we think of ourselves and the world as creation, when the idea of a creator has been so severely compromised? (Ibid., p. 91).

If there is still much “God-talk,” the reality to which the talk refers is seriously compromised:

“Whereas the God of former times may have arisen in a context in which the feeling of our dependence was palpable and clear, the God of our consumer society is dependent upon us for its reality and significance” (Ibid., p. 91). . . . “God is not so much dead, as absent: God has been banished by us in the drive to fashion a world according to our own liking or, failing that, the liking of corporate, global, economic forces. In this divine banishment, it is not surprising that the nature of the divine power as being-for-another should be entirely lost on us. We cannot be the caretakers of creation because the divine model for such care has been systematically denied or repressed by the dominant cultural trends of the last several centuries” (Ibid., p. 92).

At best, God becomes our personal friend, and Jesus a ‘soul mate’ who feels our pain and encourages us in our distancing ourselves from engagement in the web of nature. The idea that God is the God of creation and Jesus the servant of creation would appear, in view of this cultural situation, to be excised from the teaching of the church simply because it no longer makes sense within a culture that has no experience of creation, and probably cannot have one, given the way our minds and our society are structured to interpret and interact with the world.

What then are we to do? Or more to the point here, does what we have done in constructing this narrative of Jesus the Servant of Creation address the situation at all effectively? Readers will have to judge this matter for themselves and, in doing so, will profitably draw on the many other interpreters of both scripture and culture that have become engaged in this conversation. But we would hope that we have at least made a good beginning, and we would point to several aspects of our commentary that give us hope in relationship to Wirzba’s analysis. In the first place, Wirzba argues for the difference that ecological science is making in our understanding of the world as fundamentally relational (Ibid., pp. 93-122).  At several points we have been in conversation with ecological science and its foundational theory of evolutionary development and we have drawn on writers who are themselves in such conversations. That conversation with the science of ecology actually shapes our discussion at some depth.

Working back through Wirzba’s list, we may also note that biblical scholars are finding new insights on which to base a “relational theology of creation.” In particular, we have found the work of Terry Fretheim extremely helpful in this regard. For example, his interpretation of Genesis 1, which is of interest for this Sunday, pays attention to the multiple modes of God’s creative activity. God not only originates creation, but also continues creating, which “enables the becoming of the creation;” and God completes creation, by which action “something genuinely new will come to be” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 5-9). God is creator/maker, speaker, evaluator, and consultant of others; in interaction with one another. Fretheim suggests that “these images provide a more relational model of creation than has been traditionally presented.” On the other hand, he disallows imaging God as “victor” over the powers of chaos; while chaos is, to be sure, tamed in the process of creation, it remains an element in the creation that God considers to be “good;” and “a key human responsibility set out in the command of Gen 1:28 is to work creatively with that disorder,” as contrasted with authorization to dominate it and bring it under control. Neither does Fretheim hold in high regard the interpretation of God in this text as “king,” because a decisive argument against it is the “democratization that is inherent in the claim that every human being is created in the image of God. If royal language as been democratized, then royal links that may be present have been subverted and non-hierarchical perspectives prevail.” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 36-47.)  Here is a God with whom people in contemporary culture informed by ecological and evolutionary science can much more easily relate!

Additionally, in the development of our narrative, we have worked to keep our discussion relevant to real world situations, where the interdependencies of “life-giving sources of food, energy, and water” are at stake” (Ibid., p. 85). We have emphasized the need for non-anthropocentric understandings of the human/nature relationship. We find the thought of agrarians such as Waldo Leopold and Wendell Berry helpful for translating the meaning of the story of Jesus into our context.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we think that this commentary’s search for the Servant of Creation amidst the appointed texts for the Sunday’s worship services serves to bring us back into something like that allegorical imagination that allows for a sense of creation to be part of a congregation’s shared experience. It is within the conversation between the texts—in the presence of water that can be the bearer of Spirit, and of bread and wine that are acknowledged as gifts of the Creator, even as they are also nature transformed by human hands—that we find the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One who invites the community into the experience of creation and moves it toward assuming responsibility for its care. The story of the Servant of Creation becomes our story, even as our story of the abandonment of creation has become his. And he is with us, to the end of the age.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Mundahl)

Survival Is Insufficient Tom Mundahl reflects on the Trinitarian model of “making room.”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for The Holy Trinity, Year A (2020, 2023)

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

This week the church begins the season known as Ordinary Time.  But there is little ordinary about what we have experienced in 2020. The outbreak of the Coronavirus Pandemic has not only ravaged much of the world; it has prompted questions about the effectiveness of medical systems, distributive justice, and the resilience of  economies grasping for endless growth.

What’s more, at a time when necessary social-distancing policies make physical gathering for worship impossible, questions emerge about the reliability of creation, or even the faithfulness of God. It is tempting for individuals and congregations to limit the horizon of hope to mere survival. Emily St. John Mandel warns us of aiming that low in her post-pandemic novel, Station Eleven. Set in a world where barely 1% of humankind remains, the narrative revolves around the Traveling Symphony, a company of itinerant actors and musicians who move in horse-drawn wagons from one settlement to another. Painted on the front of each wagon is their credo, “Survival is Insufficient” (New York: Vintage Books, 2015, p. 119). For the resurrection community, that is a minimal standard.

The creation account which constitutes our First Reading aims much higher than “survival mode.” Written in response to the Exile, this liturgical poem provides hope to those who have wondered whether the violent Babylonian “gods” behind the enslavement of Judah might be more powerful than the one who who had formed their very identity (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), pp. 25,29). Designed for public worship, this ordered litany assures its hearers that not only is creation a realm of peaceful fruitfulness; it is “very good”(Genesis 1:31). In a time of questioning much like our own, this provided pastoral assurance to those whose world had fallen apart. They could rely on the one whose very speech brought all things into being.

But the author does not leave it there. By repeating the phrase, “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1: 4,10,12,18,21,25,31), hearers are invited to see and care for the earth as the creator would. Ellen Davis reminds us, “Contemplation and action are not separate strategies, nor is the latter a corrective to the former. They are part of a single complex process: accurate perception leading to metanoia….’To change one’s mind is to change the way one works,’ says Wendell Berry” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 47).

This provides a clue to the mysterious phrase: “So God created humankind in his image….”(Genesis 1:27).  May it not be that to “image God” is precisely to see the goodness of creation through the eyes of the creator. This seems to be a necessary qualification for having “dominion” (Genesis 1:28). This notion is supported with the word choice made immediately following this grant of responsibility. While the NRSV translates “see” (Genesis 1:29), far stronger is the RSV/KJV “behold.” To “behold” the gift of plants, trees, and beasts implies a way of reflective, almost prayerful, vision that prevents rapacious use. From this standpoint, it should be no surprise that dominance here “is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals” (Brueggemann, p. 32). This is far more than sentiment; the shepherd is one who exercises the“skilled mastery” (Davis, 58) essential for animal husbandry, or, today, healing cases of Covid-19, or even confronting the climate crisis.

Failure to take this responsibility seriously can damage the whole enterprise, as we see in Genesis 3 where the actors neglect to see as the creator sees. Linguist Robert Bringhurst writes, “The Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis has suffered a lot of editorial meddling…but the character of the underlying material is clear.  The stories are full of foreboding.  The narrators know they are dealing with hubris, not beatitude. And in spite of, or because of, the foreboding, the Hebrew text is laughing to itself….” (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die–Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis,University of Regina Press, 2018, pp. 9-10). This should be no surprise: for a poem stemming from the experience of exile to be without irony when considering “dominion” would be strange indeed.

Yet this liturgical poem is completed hopefully, with the additional creation on the seventh day of menuha, sabbath rest. While Genesis 1:1-2:4a is often considered to be a description of the creation of the world, much more significant is comprehending this world’s character, which is crystallized in sabbath. As Norman Wirzba suggests, “Sabbath is not an optional reprieve in the midst of an otherwise frantic or obsessive life.  It is the goal of all existence because in the Sabbath life becomes what it fully ought to be.  It is an invitation to paradise understood as genuine delight” (Food and Faith, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2018, p.86). Sabbath is for the whole creation, all of which is deemed “good” and equally “blessed.” However, because all is “very good,” sabbath rest may be especially important for humankind that needs to experience the radical interdependence (shalom) that alone can teach “seeing as God sees.” This journey is necessary to learning the skilled mastery of shepherd care.

And it is a communal pilgrimage.  This is made clear by Wendell Berry in his poetry, fiction, and many essays, where he consistently returns to the theme of membership in the comprehensive community of creation. In fact, one of his most telling essays (vital during this time of Covid-19) is entitled, “Health is Membership” (Another Turn of the Crank, Counterpoint, 1995, pp. 86-109).  As Berry’s friend, Noman Wirzba, writes, “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (Wirzba, p. 89).

Because the character of the world consists of memberships, sabbath rest finds its source in a Trinitarian understanding of God who continually makes room for what is not God (creation) to be and grow. No grasping is allowed! “Trinitarian theology asserts that all true reality, as created by God, is communion, is the giving and receiving of gifts.  This means no living thing is alone or exists by itself or for itself” (Wirzba, 198).

Today’s Gospel Reading is the culmination of community formation in Matthew.  Amazed by the empty tomb, the faithful women are sent with a message to the rest of the followers instructing them to assemble in Galilee where they will see the Risen One (Matthew 28:7).  It is not surprising to discover that the place of meeting is a Galilean mountain, for throughout Matthew “mountaintop experiences” are crucial. The tempter’s offer of total power (Matthew 4:8-9), Jesus’ most comprehensive teaching for the faithful (Matthew 5-7), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-9), and, now, the commissioning of the followers all take place in mountainous terrain.

Not only do these echo the biblical tendency to locate significant events on mountains; they also provide away-places where teaching happens and community identity is formed. As Belden Lane contends, the mountain is the place where “the established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted.  Jesus repeatedly leads people into hostile landscapes, away from society and its conventions, to invite them into something altogether new” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998), p. 45). From this Galilean mountain, the Risen One sends followers to nurture new memberships throughout the world.

Preceding this new direction, Jesus assures followers that he has been given “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18).  This is genuine authority, not the grasping for power dangled teasingly by the tempter (Matthew 4:8-9).  We know that this authority is different, because in keeping with Trinitarian “making room,” Jesus immediately uses it to empower the disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….” (Matthew 28:19). Just as the Father-creator makes room for all that is made, now the Son shares the dynamism of new life to build networks of trust throughout the creation.

All of this is affirmed by a Spirit who enables deep connection between the unity we call God and those branches nourished by the roots of this vine. In his reflections on the Trinity, Augustine called this bond the vinculum caritatis, the “vine of loving grace.” As Mark Wallace suggests, “In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life–divine, human, and non-human” (Fragments of the Spirit, Trinity, 2002, p. 145).

Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism by John (Matthew 3:13-17); now it continues by the disciples “making room” for new followers and learning about the unity of creation. And this in a Mediterranean world based on the Pax Romana where the Empire brooked no competitors.  Had not the Roman historian, Livy, claimed that the mythical founder, Romulus, had ordered, “Go and declare to the Romans the will of heaven that Rome shall be the capital of the world” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2008, p. 550). Rome offers no room for options, but grasps for total control. But having failed to silence Jesus, imperial success in stopping his enspirited disciples appears unlikely. They listen to the new direction: “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28: 19).

Too often this call to go beyond boundaries to build communities of new life has degenerated into an ideology justifying colonial empire-building.  This neglects the insights of Mission on Six Continents and other movements that have discovered to their surprise that when they arrived in “other cultures” God’s presence was already there, requiring new understandings of what “being sent” means.

The enormity of this task can only be based on the power of the final verse, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28:20, RSV).  This verse completes the framing of Matthew as the Emmanuel gospel–identifying the incarnate one as “God with us “– and providing assurance that this presence will always accompany the memberships of the baptized. While NRSV translates the initial word as “remember,” we prefer the older, literal, “behold.” As Maggie Ross suggests, “The word the NRSV uses instead of ‘behold’–‘remember’–has nothing of this covenant of engagement or self-emptying required” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p.10).  Beholding calls forth the necessity of seeing the whole creation as God saw it, a deep beholding perhaps best nurtured in silence and sabbath rest.

To say God is with us in the context of the Trinity leads us to recall that the breadth of this promise includes the whole Earth community (Elaine Wainright, Habitat, Human, and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2017, p. 218).  After all, as our First Reading makes clear, all creation was blessed. Wirzba puts it best: “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (p. 198). Whether the “others” are garlic plants grown in well-composted soil, goldfinches at the feeder, or the new neighbor, we are called to “go,”“make room,” and connect.

This is not the way we have been acting as we have entered the anthropocene era, where no longer is there anything purely “natural,” untouched by human action. As a result, says Michael Klare:

“Mother Nature, you might say, is striking back.  It is, however, the potential for ‘non-linear events’ and ‘tipping points’ that has some climate scientists especially concerned, fearing that we now live on what might be thought of as an avenging planet. While many climate effects, like prolonged heat waves, will become more pronounced over time, other effects, it is now believed, will occur suddenly, with little warning, and could result in large-scale disruptions in human life (as in the coronavirus moment). You might think of this as Mother Nature saying, ‘Stop! Do not go past this point or there will be dreadful consequences!’” (resilience.org/stories/2020-04-14)

So is it “Stop!” or “Go!?”  Because “survival is insufficient,” we must answer, “both.” Easing the greedy “grasping” we have made our favored style of interaction, we are called like the persons of the Trinity to “make room,” to learn from the non-human others and cultures that teach us to live within earth’s limits.  We learn to exercise creation care with the skilled mastery of a shepherd. But we also stop to revel in sabbath rest, where we behold and enjoy the mystery of all things. Like the pandemic-stricken world of Station Eleven, we discover that all that can be counted or collected is not enough: we need the beauty of music, drama, and even worship. As we move Sunday by Sunday through the season of Ordinary Time (the term refers to the “ordinal” numbering of Sundays after Pentecost), we will find living out our gracious baptismal calling is more than enough.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
tmundahl@gmail.com

Pentecost in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver of Life! Dennis Ormseth reflects on Pentecost.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Pentecost is the “Birthday of the Church.”

The Day of Pentecost is commonly celebrated as “the birthday of the church.” Emphasis will be placed on the communal nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit. That so many people heard their native tongue being spoken, and yet understood a common message, will be “demonstrated” as individuals talented in diverse languages simulate the cacophony of a United Nations social gathering and the preacher is called on to set out the shared meaning. Spiritual seekers will be encouraged by pastors who are alert to our contemporary cultural context to abandon their suspicions of established religious communities. As Diane Jacobson would put it to them, “You are not in this alone; the Spirit is with you. You are not alone—this is God’s promise and invitation. But know as well that you cannot experience this gift in isolation. The Spirit is also with all those around you joined by Christ’s name as one. The Spirit is God’s communal gift” (“The Day of Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, ed. by Marshall D. Johnson, p. 76).

Celebrate the Spirit as a renewal of the whole creation

All of which certainly belongs to the meaning of the Day of Pentecost, and yet it represents a many faceted “opportunity missed” to celebrate the renewal in the Spirit of the whole creation and to characterize the mission of the church as a newly energized care of creation. The community created and renewed by the Spirit of God, these texts allow, includes all creation. It is “Earth community.” As is typically pointed out by way of explaining why a multitude of languages was heard, there were “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5). They were there because Pentecost is another name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, one of the three great festivals of the Jewish calendar for which Jews from the Diaspora return to the city. In Jesus day, the focus of this festival was on God’s gift of the covenant, which was given to Israel in the wilderness. Originally, however, the Feast of Weeks was observed as a harvest festival: thanks were given for the first fruits of the ground as a way of remembering the first harvest from the land after Israel returned from the Egypt (Leviticus 23:9-21).

Celebrate the first fruits of the Spirit as the first fruits of restored creation!

So now, also Christians give thanks for first fruits, but it is the first fruits of the Spirit—ironically “spiritualizing” a festival that in its origin had to do centrally with the flourishing of the people living in the land under the covenant God made with them at Sinai. We suggest an alternative understanding of the Christian Pentecost, namely, this: by the power of the Holy Spirit we enter into the new creation in which people of all nations begin to flourish anew under the Lordship of Jesus. As he promised, Jesus, God’s servant of all creation who has now been raised to live in glory with his heavenly Father, sends the Spirit upon the Church. In this understanding, Pentecost celebrates the first fruits of a restored creation.

Creation in wind, fire, tongues, the spirit on all flesh, marks in hands and side.

The lectionary lessons for the Day of Pentecost firmly support this alternative reading. The famous signs of Pentecost, a violent wind and tongues of fire, are creational. Yes, they recall the theophanies of Sinai and the burning bush. But also, experientially, they say that “something new is happening here.” The wind is the primordial breath of the Spirit at creation. The fire marks off holy ground as the God of creation draws near.  The “last days” of Joel, when the Spirit is poured out “upon all flesh” have begun (Acts 2:17). The resurrected Jesus is identified by the marks on his hands and side as the servant of creation whom the Father sent to save the beloved cosmos, and he breaths the breath of God’s Spirit upon the disciples who are to put aside their fears and go in peace into that creation (John 20:19-22). And, in the words of Paul from the second lesson, the Spirit authorizes the proclamation of Jesus (who died on the cross as the servant of creation) as the Lord of the creation, along with granting the variety of gifts, services, and activities that are the Spirit’s means for bringing about the “common good” of the one, newly created “body of Christ” in the world (1 Corinthians 12:1-13).

Psalm 104 marks the ecological renewal of all creation

The text that authorizes this reading of the meaning of Pentecost most forcefully, however, is the psalm appointed for the Day of Pentecost, Psalm 104. The selection of this psalm was no doubt made because of the mention of the Spirit in v. 30: “When you send forth your spirit (or breath) . . . .” Psalms that speak so appropriately for this Feast of God sending the Spirit are exceedingly few. Astounding, however, is the serendipitous and theologically fortuitous statement of the reason for this sending:  “they”—meaning all the extended list of earthly creatures named in the first 26 verses of the psalm –“are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” In point of fact, the psalm is a more perfect fit for the original Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, than for the Pentecost that Christians typically celebrate. God is praised as the provider for all creatures of whom the psalmist speaks in saying: “These all look to you to give them their food in due season.” But the truly remarkable thing is that the Psalm also exhibits a powerfully ecological understanding of the creation; and, quite by itself, provides sufficient grounding for our reading of the Christian festival.

Psalm 104 as “ecological doxology”!

The ecological character of Psalm 104 was highlighted by Joseph Sittler throughout the development of his theology of creation. He commonly described it as an “ecological doxology” (Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Evocations of Grace, p. 83; cf. “Essays on Nature and Grace, Ibid, p. 183, and “Evangelism and the Care of the Earth,” Ibid., p. 204). Early on, Sittler identified Psalm 104 as one of two primary texts (Romans 8:19 is the other) that support his conviction that responsibility for care of the earth is a contemporary theological imperative:

Beginning with the air, the sky, the small and then the great animals, the work that humans do upon Earth and the delight that they take in it, the doxological hymn unfolds to celebrate both the mysterious fecundity that evermore flows from the fountain of all livingness, up to the great coda of the psalm in which the phrase occurs—“These all hang upon Thee.” The word “hang” is an English translation of a word that literally means to “depend,” to receive existence and life from another. These all hang together because they all hang upon Thee. “You give them their life. You send forth Your breath, they live.” Here is teaching of the divine redemption within the primal context of the divine Creation. Unless we fashion a relational doctrine of creation—which doctrine can rightly live with evolutionary theory—then we shall end up with a reduction, a perversion, and ultimately an irrelevance as regards the doctrine of redemption (Ibid., p. 83).

The reading of Psalm 104 on the Day of Pentecost is an opportunity not to be missed for lifting up God’s love and care for creation as an essential part of the church’s Spirit-driven mission. The limited verses appointed for the reading will suffice to make the main point of this message, while a reading of the entire Psalm would provide a basis for exploring the ecological theology of the psalm in greater detail.

The psalmist praises the God who cares for all creation.

In his recent book, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, Arthur Walker Jones provides helpful insights that deepen Sittler’s appreciation. Jones couples Psalm 103, which celebrates the “steadfast love and compassion” of the Creator that “is experienced in the life of the individual in healing, salvation, and justice,” with Psalm 104, which praises “the God who cares for all creature.” “The same Creator has acted through nature in the exodus and wilderness wandering. After this extensive praise of God’s wonders and works as Creator, they confess that Israel had forgotten the Creator, and pray for a return from exile” (The Green Psalter, p.99).

Psalm 104 imagines a world of social and ecological justice

Psalm 104, Jones notes, is “one of the longest creation passages in the Bible,” and it is subversively lacking in reference to king or temple, as compared with other creation texts:  “Verses 27 to 30 portray the direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures. . . .God is the spirit of life in all creation. Therefore, God’s presence is not mediated by king or temple but is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (Ibid., p. 119-20). Written in the context of the great suffering of the exile, Jones suggests, Psalm 104 reflects an awareness of the steadfast love and power of God in the goodness and reliability of creation. Israel has experienced national chaos; and, on the other side of chaos, Israel is able to see that such chaos (Leviathan) has a place in creation. They recognize humans as an integral part of a creation cared for by the Creator. They recognize the dangers of identifying God with king. And they have an understanding of their relationship to God as Creator apart from and perhaps in opposition to human empires. Similarly, in contemporary contexts of empire, Psalm 104 may have the potential for imagining a world of social and ecological justice (Ibid., p. 123).

We are all interrelated and interdependent in God’s creation.

Jones profoundly agrees with Sittler’s assessment: the Psalm, Jones writes, is far more ecological than Genesis 1-3. Its “depiction of the role of humanity in creation is less anthropocentric,” and “creatures and parts of creation . . . seem to have intrinsic value independent of humans” (Ibid, p. 140). Jones traces the web of ecological relation through the verses of the Psalm:

This ancient celebration of Creator and creation has similarities to modern ecology’s understanding of the interrelationship and inter-dependence of all species in the web of life. While the number of species named is limited, the passage does, by the species it chooses to mention, represent in symbolic, poetic form the abundance and diversity of species and their interdependence. The species represented move from mountains to valleys, up into the mountains again, and then out to sea. They include domestic animals that humans need and animals that are of no use—like wild goats and rock coneys—or are dangerous to humans, like lions.  Thus, habitats and species are chosen to represent a world of diverse habitats teeming with creatures or, in the language of praise and awe, “How manifold are your works . . , earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24).  While all the complex interrelationships are not portrayed, enough chains of life are traced in poetic form to indicate the interrelationship and interdependence of various species and their habitats. Springs provide water for wild animals and wild asses (verses 10-12). Springs flow into streams that water trees (verses 12, 16), which, in turn, provide habitat for storks and other birds (verses 12, 17). Mountains provide habitat for wild goats and the rocks for wild coneys (verse 18). The poetry portrays a world similar to that described by modern ecology—abundant, diverse, interrelated, and interdependent (Ibid., pp. 140-41).

The goodness of the creation is celebrated without reservation. Creation is unmarred by the “fall” of Genesis 2 and 3. ”Far from being cursed, creation has goodness and blessing that includes a sense of beauty and joy,” without setting aside an awareness of nature that is “red in tooth and claw”—an understanding so essential to the modern theory of evolution (Ibid., p. 142).

Creation is juice and joy and sinful human beings.

Amidst all this “juice and joy” in creation, Psalm 104 presents a final reminder that, on account of the presence of humans within it, not all is well with it (as expressed at verse 35): “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Sinful humans are also part of the beloved creation. Again, the verse is unfortunately omitted from the reading. Coupling this psalm with Jesus’ gift of the Spirit as told in John 20:23 will serve to provide one more reason for us to broaden the focus of Pentecost from church to creation—for it is in the power of the Spirit that the church forgives, or takes away, the sin of the world, including all the sin that bears so destructively on the creation.

The Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life”!

And here is one final encouragement to engage the texts for Pentecost in this manner. We recall that the ecumenical church confesses in the Nicene Creed that the Spirit is “‘the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” A theology that is adequate to this triune relationship is one that lifts up for the faithful the eternal love God has in the Spirit for the whole creation in Christ Jesus. Along the way in this extraordinary journey from the First Sundays of Advent through to the Day of Pentecost, we have had several occasions to lift up the importance of the Holy Spirit as a driver of ecological awareness and of care of creation, not only inside the church, but out in the world as well. Elizabeth Johnson aptly notes that, although the Spirit has been badly neglected in the history of the church’s teaching, the

“world will tell of the glory of God. Anyone who has ever resisted or mourned the destruction of the Earth or the demise of one of its living species, or has wondered at the beauty of a sunrise, the awesome power of a storm, the vastness of prairie or mountain or ocean, the greening of the Earth after periods of dryness or cold, the fruitfulness of a harvest, the unique ways of wild or domesticated animals, or any of the other myriad phenomena of this planet and its skies has potentially brushed up against an experience of the creative power of the mystery of God, Creator Spirit” (She Who Is, p. 125).

First fruits of the Spirit and the first fruits of Earth—in springtime.

And, accordingly, I offer a suggestion. In the northern hemisphere, let us celebrate Pentecost as a season of the “first fruits” of the Earth. Farmers markets are newly reopened; gardeners rejoice in the harvest of asparagus and rhubarb, young lettuce and spinach; gatherers hunt for the elusive morel mushrooms. We easily miss the joy of first harvest in an age when we permit supermarkets—the retail outlets for our fossil fuel driven—industrialized food system, to provide us with their year-round supply of every season’s produce. And we probably miss a good deal of that sense of divinely dependent flourishing for which the Psalmist gave thanks. Might not the church do well to help recover this joy by including within the symbolism of Pentecost an offering of the first fruits of the season as among the important gifts of the “Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life?”

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Seventh Sunday of Easter (May 24, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

God can be counted upon to “keep” the creatures of God’s creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on Jesus’ Farewell Prayer.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

On this Sunday, the church takes note of Jesus’ ascension to the Father (actually celebrated on the previous Thursday) and recalls Jesus’ prayer for the church in view of the new mode of his presence as universal, that is, at the right hand of God. The significance of the Ascension is, as Gordon Lathrop writes, that . . .

“While the world sees Jesus as dead and gone—’withdrawn’ in that sense—the faith of the community sees Jesus as with God. Jesus’ meaning and presence therefore is universalized, is everywhere, as God is, and at the same time, God’s glory is accessible in Jesus. It is this which the community knows, not the calculations of times and seasons (Acts 1:7)” (Proclamation 6; Interpreting the lessons of the Church Years, Series A, Easter, p. 57).

As anticipated in our reading of the Farewell Discourse of the previous two Sundays of Easter, Jesus is now “at home” in “the Father’s house”—namely, in the whole of the creation!

The manner of Jesus’ “Farewell Prayer” suggests the same situation: Jesus looks to heaven and addresses his Father directly. The prayer itself clearly relates to the Farewell Discourse in a way that is similar to the connection between the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:30 – 32:47) and Moses’ farewell speeches and is deeply grounded in the narrative of the Gospel. As Gail O’Day observes, the prayer echoes with “themes from all of Jesus preceding discourses. . . . The Jesus who speaks in this prayer is familiar to the Gospel reader as the incarnate Logos, the Son of God the Father” (see Gail O’Day, The Gospel of JohnThe New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 787, for a detailed list of verse-by-verse references to texts read during the Year A Easter Season). But it also bespeaks an intimate relationship between Father and Son that clearly anticipates the Ascension. Indeed, as Raymond Brown suggests,

“[t]he Jesus of the Last Discourse transcends time and space, for from heaven and beyond the grave he is already speaking to the disciples of all time. Nowhere is this more evident than in xvii where Jesus already assumes the role of heavenly intercessor that I John  ii 1 ascribes to him after the resurrection.”

Quoting C. H. Dodd, Brown concludes, “the prayer itself is the ascension of Jesus to the Father; it is truly the prayer of ‘the hour” (Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, pp. 747).

In striking contrast with this heavenly, filial intimacy, however, is the provocative proclamation represented by the church’s reading of Psalm 68 this Sunday. The God whom the psalmist bids “rise up” so as to “scatter his enemies” presents a much more vigorous and earthly presence: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God.” The joyful righteous “sing praises to . . . to him who rides upon the clouds.” The God whom the church relates to the ascension of Jesus is the God who is “father of orphans and protector of widows. . . in his holy habitation” and who “gives the desolate a home to live in.” This God “marched through the wilderness,” when “the earth quaked, [and] the heavens poured down rain.” With “rain in abundance,” he restored the heritage of the people “when it languished.” Like sheep led into green pastures, the people (“your flock”) “found a dwelling in it; in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy” (68:1-10). This is the ancient god of the mountains who created and now saves Israel. As Warren Carter writes,

“The language attesting God’s cosmic reign and identity as divine warrior reflects early Canaanite religious claims. God’s identity as ‘the one who rides upon the clouds’ (68:4, 33) derives from Ugaritic descriptions of Ba’al, the storm and fertility god (68:8-9) who battles (68:17) and defeats the evil and deathly powers that would prevent such life (68:20) and who is enthroned king”  (“The Season of Easter,” in New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, p. 67).

And yet, this God is also familiar to us from the story of Jesus’ way through Galilee. Readers will recognize the God of Sinai, but also the God of Zion, who provides water not only in the wilderness, but also at the well of Jacob and in the pool of Siloam in the city of Jerusalem. This is the God whom Jesus made present on his way through the land to his confrontation with the false shepherds of his people. There is even a bit of wildness to this God, we would suggest, a wildness that Jesus would have encountered and indeed embraced in his sojourn in the wilderness. Just so, the ascended Jesus has good reason to be absolutely “at home” with him; this God has been with him all along the way.

Thus the Farewell Prayer of Jesus, so important for those whom he leaves behind—yes, ironically, it is the “left behind” for whom Jesus prays—is richly significant for the creation over which he now rises. There is another very striking aspect of this God with whom Jesus is now “at home.” This “rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens” is full of creative power:

Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel;
and whose power is in the skies.
Awesome is God in his sanctuary,
the God of Israel;
he gives power and strength to his people.

Thus the reading of this psalm makes the connection so essential for care of creation. Jesus is the servant of Philippians 2 who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself; now he is “highly exalted” so that, in the company of the creator God of Israel, at his name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This is the Word who glorified the Father “on earth by finishing the work” that the Father gave him to do; the glory he had “from before the world existed” has now been restored (John 17:5). And in light of our reading of the Lenten and Easter lectionary, it is the servant of God whose work was to do his Father’s will in faithful obedience to the rule of the servant of creation, who now ascends to his Father and regains access to the Father’s creative power. Nevertheless, their mutually shared glory and equality means that the exalted Jesus will still do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus might have found from time to time more desirable and “wise” from a human point of view. The powers available to him as Son of God (remember the temptations in the wilderness?) will still be under the discipline of this rule of the Servant of creation.

We see an indication of that in the Farewell Prayer: with the reading of this prayer, we “overhear” Jesus’ conversation with the Father in which he asks that with the name (17:6) and the words (17:7) of the Father which Jesus has given to his disciples (later in the prayer he will add the glory (17:22) and the presence (17:23) of God as well) that the Father will protect or “keep” them in the world. As Warren Carter comments, in this prayer of Jesus, John identifies three “crucial but related affirmations about the church as an Easter people:” “Originating with God” and in God’s purposes, and “commissioned to mission in the present,” the church will be “kept by God in God’s future” (“The Season of Easter,” in New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, p. 72). The second reading reminds us that this is true even though they experience the “fiery ordeal” of opposition and harassment from that world. For “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:12). The Father, it seems, like the Son, is also one who can be called upon, and counted upon, to “keep” the creatures of his creation. And together, they will do this forever.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 17, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Human beings grow into divine fellowship to participate in the relief of nature’s groaning. Dennis Ormseth reflects on living in relationship.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

The reading of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse continues with this Sunday’s Gospel, with its concern for how his followers will live in his absence, in anticipation of the closing of the period of his Easter appearances and his Ascension. The passage extends the discussion of the relationship between the community of believers, Jesus, and his Father, relationships with which we were engaged by the reading of the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. With promises to send the Paraclete and not ever to abandon them (“I will not leave you orphaned”), Jesus invites his followers to look forward to a future in which, by the agency of the Paraclete or “Spirit of Truth,” they will know that he is in his Father, they are in him, and he is in them (14:20). This mutual indwelling is a relationship characterized throughout by love. The relationship of Jesus and the community is one of love: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” They will be loved by the Father: “and those who love me will be loved by my Father.” And Jesus, loving them, will make himself known to them: “I will love them and reveal myself to them” (14:20-21). By virtue of this circular set of relationships, the believing community is to be caught up in the divine relationship of Father, Son and Spirit.

Thus is adumbrated the teaching that will be worked out in the course of the Christian community’s first four centuries as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is interesting to note that all of the issues at stake in the development of this doctrine are at least implicit in the Farewell Discourse: the question of the unity of God or monotheism, which will be at issue in the church’s conflict with Judaism; the question of how best to define the relationship of the Father and the Son (Spirit or Logos?), which will shape the church’s relationship with pagan thought; the status and role of the Holy Spirit, key to linkage with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the bond between redemption and creation that that church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics (For this list, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the CatholicTradition (100-600), Vol.1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, p. 172). The lectionary for the remaining Sundays of the festival season—including the Seventh Sunday of Easter (following the Ascension of our Lord), Day of Pentecost, and The Holy Trinity—will provide occasion to discuss the significance of each of these issues for care of creation. But it is the last of these issues that is still our leading concern here, as we explore the significance of Jesus’ teaching in the Farewell Discourse regarding his mutual indwelling between God and the community of faith with respect to the bond between redemption and creation.

From the readings of the previous two Sundays we have seen that the issue of location (in place or in situation) is a constant feature of the experience of redemption associated with Jesus’ resurrection. The Shepherd leads the sheep out into green pastures. Jesus goes to prepare dwelling places in the house of the Lord, which we take to mean the entirety of God’s creation. The readings for this Sunday further strengthen this theme. The psalmist, for instance, describes an experience of release from a period of testing as being “brought out to a spacious place” (Psalm 66:12b). More importantly, in his speech to the Athenians on the Areopagus, Paul sketches out the works of God in terms of space and time: “The Lord of heaven and earth . . . made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and . . . allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” It is God’s presence throughout this cosmos—“In him we live and move and have our being”—which guarantees that all nations will search for him “and perhaps grope for him and find him.” As “God’s offspring” (here Paul quotes a pagan philosopher, but perhaps has in mind the metaphor of “God’s children” that he uses in other contexts), we seem especially well-suited to this cosmic search, rather than attempting to locate God in the shrines and idols made by human hands that Paul observed through the city. With the resurrection, God calls all nations to accountability for righteousness before the one appointed as their judge (Acts 17:24-29).

The appointed Gospel might appear to ignore the cosmic, creational reach of these texts in favor of the intimate communion of the believing community, Jesus, and his Father. Within the fuller context of the Farewell Discourse, however, we see otherwise. Gail O’Day sums up her analysis of the complex relationships between the community of believers, Jesus, and the Father as follows: “When the disciples live in love, and thereby keep Jesus’ word, they experience the love of God, and it is through that love that they will also experience the indwelling of God and Jesus.” She goes on to note, significantly, that while, according to John 14:2-3, the “full communion” of the disciples “with God and Jesus” occurs “in the Father’s ‘dwelling place,’” John 14:23 indicates that “love of Jesus leads to the same end. To love Jesus is to live with God and Jesus—that is, to enter into relationship with them (cf. 15:9-10, 12), to come home” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of JohnThe New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 748). Since the appointed reading ends at v. 21, preachers following this commentary may want to add it to the liturgical reading.  It seems appropriate to us to add this additional insight: Those who do “come home,” are at home were the Father is, in “the Father’s house.” That is to say, they are at home in the fullness of God’s creation. Thus it is precisely the believing community’s communion with God and Jesus, generated through the love of Jesus, which brings them home in relationship to the creation. They are at home with God in God’s creation.

The significance of this insight is developed more fully in reference to contemporary evolutionary thought by Christopher Southgate in his discussion of “the human animal and its ‘selving’” in his Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil.  “Graced by the continual outpouring of divine love” in the course of human evolution, Southgate writes, the human animal enjoys “possibilities for a ‘yes’ to God that goes beyond mere selving—a usage Southgate adapts from Gerard Manley Hopkins, meaning the dynamic moment when a creature perfectly expresses its “identity, the pattern and particularity of its existence to their full potential,” i.e. “when it is perfectly itself, both in terms of the species to which it belongs and in its own individuality” (Southgate, pp.63-64).

The human animal’s “yes to God” is “based on a sharing of resources with the weak and the non-kin, on reproductive processes accompanied by self-giving love and sustained companionship, on a recognizing of all humans as one’s neighbor, and on sacrificial actions.” But as with all other creatures, humans never “selve” in any fulfilled way. The ambiguous character of the creation as evolutionary process makes that perfection impossible. “The character of created selves is typically not that of self-giving but of self-assertion, for that, in a Darwinian world, is the only way biological selves can survive and flourish” (ibid, p. 5). Evolutionary strategies “almost always involve the overproduction of offspring, and necessarily imply the existence of ‘frustrated’ organisms is a precondition of other organisms ‘growing toward fulfillment’ and ‘fulfilled.’” (ibid, pp. 64-5). Thus, in human consciousness, “old imperatives with regard to resources, reproduction, relatives, and reciprocity” develop “an addictive power:”

Consciousness seems to amplify the potential of humans for evil as well as good. Both our yes and our no to God take on formidable force; our no becomes ecologically the force to become a “plague species,” economically to perpetuate and exacerbate extremes of wealth and poverty, militarily and socially to ghettoize and ultimately to undertake genocide, religiously to crucify the Prince of Peace and Lord of Glory” (Ibid., p. 72).

Our cognitive and emotional resources combine with these biological imperatives to foster “greed, lust, rape, and exploitation of the weak, of the poor, or other species.”   Thus,

“[w]ith our emergent faculties comes a greater and greater need of God—a need not just to receive from God but to dwell within the life of the Trinity, to live within and from the patterns of the triune love. It is the Incarnation, finally, that opens up the being of God in a new way, offering us both the most profound of examples, and a new possibility of being at home within the life of a God who has taken human experience into Godself” (Ibid).

It isn’t that Jesus himself was “at home,” within either the life of God or the creation. On the contrary, Southgate observes, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have Jesus confess that while “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt.8:20; Luke 9:5). The Christian conviction is instead “that Jesus gives us the example of what it is to keep one’s orientation firmly and wholly on God, and to derive all one’s strength from that. . . The human being has no true home, but only a direction of journeying, into the heart of God in Godself.” What Jesus does to prepare for his disciples, we might say, he does also to prepare for himself. And as he said, “Where I am, there you may be also (14:3).

The model is Trinitarian and, indeed, is more than mere model. It is “not just that a human being fully alive has a quality of life that is like the quality of life that is within God, not just, in the famous saying of Irenaeus of Lyons, that the glory of God is a human being fully alive, but also that a human person living in free, loving, undistorted relationship with others has been drawn up into the life of the Trinity, and participates in that life” (Ibid., p. 73). But this is finally the human animal’s true “selving” as image of God or, more fully expressed, as image of the divine Trinity. As Southgate concludes, “On this model the imago Dei is the imago Trinitatis, the capacity to give love, in the power of the Spirit, to the radically other, and by that same Spirit to receive love from that other, selflessly. But we only grow into that image as we grow into God, as we learn to dwell within the triune love. We never possess the imago independently of that indwelling, that journeying toward God’s offer of ultimate love (Ibid., pp. 72-73). And thus there emerges within human beings that “possibility of a larger ‘yes’—of a sharing of resources with the weak and the non-kin, of reproductive processes accompanied by self-giving love and sustained companionship, of recognizing all humans as one’s neighbor, and of self-sacrificial actions. This possibility will be realized within the web of relationships in the creation, as humans’ grow into the life of divine fellowship and participation in the divine transformation of the biosphere, the relief of nature’s groaning” (Ibid, p. 115).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 10, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

Ocean Coral Illuminates the “Living Stone” of Christ. Leah Schade reflects on 1 Peter 2 and John 14.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” said Peter in his letter (1 Peter 2:4). What does it mean to be a living stone? How can a stone be alive?

In 2014 Time magazine featured an article about a global effort to photo-document and study coral reefs using state-of-the-art technology (Bryan Walsh, “Ocean View.” Time, April 14, 2014). According to the article, about one-third of everything that lives in the ocean lives in a coral reef. Coral is a living organism, even though at first glance it just looks and feels like colorful rock formations.

We might say that coral is like a living stone. “Corals are tiny invertebrates that exist in symbiosis with photosynthetic single-cell algae called zooxanthellae, which live inside the coral’s tissue (The zooxanthellae provide food to the coral by converting sunlight into energy). Corals build up hard exoskeletons made of layers of secreted calcium carbonate, which form the reef” (p. 43). The structure is sturdy and yet porous, allowing water to flow through it, absorbing nutrients, housing microscopic life forms. Coral reefs provide habitat, food and spawning grounds for countless species of fish and ocean plants. “In a healthy reef, you can see everything from tiny gobies to predatory sharks swimming amid a network of coral as intricate as a medieval cathedral” (p. 43).

Seeing images of these coral reefs brings to mind Jesus’ metaphor for the dwelling place of God: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2). What better way to think about the infinite hospitality of God than to compare it to a beautiful stretch of coral reef hosting so many different life forms! Psalm 31 also reinforces the imagery of God as a sanctuary of rock, strong and protective—similar to the coral reef that hosts a dazzling array of life-forms. “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge . . . Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress” (Psalm 31:1, 2-3). The preacher with access to Powerpoint and a screen for worship services may want to project images of coral reefs so that congregants can have these colorful cathedrals in mind as they make the connection between God as sanctuary and rock and Jesus as living stone.

For some churches, May is the month in which they celebrate Volunteer Recognition Sunday. It is a time to recognize the infinite variety of gifts that each of us brings to the church. We might think of the church as a beautiful coral reef, playing host to so many different individuals and families, an entire ecosystem of faith. Each person has something to contribute to the coral reef of the church. And as a spiritual house of living stones, we each are nurtured by this community, this ecosystem of faith.

But like the coral reefs in our planet’s oceans, church ecosystems are sensitive to systemic and environmental conditions. The Time article listed overfishing, coastal overpollution and development, global warming and ocean acidification as all having detrimental effects on our oceans’ coral reefs. Seventy-five percent of the world’s reefs are threatened. In some locations coral cover has dropped from 80% to 13% over the course of the last twenty-five years.

A parallel can be seen in the state of our churches as well. The ecosystems of faith that used to thrive in our society are now finding the conditions around us to be increasingly hostile to the life of the church. Secularization, competition for parishioners’ time, the “pollution” of Sabbath-time by commerce, the growth of “the nones” (folks who indicate adherence to “no religion” in surveys), and the perceived irrelevancy of churches and faith to growing numbers of people are all having detrimental effects on our churches.

What many do not realize, however, is just how valuable the church is to society. The same is true for coral reefs which often go unrecognized for just how much they contribute to our food supply, our economies, and even our medical treatments. Similarly, the church throughout history to the present day has been responsible for much good that most people take for granted. Charity toward widows and orphans, hospitals, public education, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention the raising of children with strong moral and ethical values, have all had their origins in churches and other houses of worship, and have had a profoundly positive impact on human society over the centuries. Today, churches contribute much to their communities and society in general by addressing poverty and assisting the poor, responding to natural disasters, providing relief to refugees, advocating for society’s most vulnerable citizens, providing counseling and spiritual direction, distributing food and clothing, and providing leadership and resources for justice issues. Too, some of the greatest leaders lifting up and inspiring humanity’s highest ideals have arisen from churches.

The Time article noted that public attention to the plight of coral reefs has suffered because these underwater kingdoms are not easy to see. Very few people ever get to swim amid coral reefs. And there hasn’t been much photo-documentation of these fragile ecosystems. That’s one of the reasons the new 360-degree cameras they are using to photograph the ocean floor are so important (similarly to the way Google Earth has shown us the surface of our planet in astounding ways). Oceanographers have come to recognize the truth of a familiar adage: we will not save what we do not love. Thus they are doing their best to help us fall in love with our coral reefs so that as a human species we will take steps to preserve what is left.

Churches, too, have suffered from lack of visibility and accessibility. Very few people in society come into our churches—swim amid our coral reefs, so to speak. That’s why it’s so important to tell people what goes on in our churches, what great work we do to serve local communities and the larger society. I’ve often mused that churches need to hire publicity directors and public relations experts so that, like the oceanographers who bring these images of the reefs to light, the contributions of our churches can be highlighted in our communities. People will not save what they do not love. We should help people to fall in love with our churches, even if they do not attend them, so that they will come to cherish the incredibly valuable “ecosystems of faith” in our society and communities.

In the sermon, the preacher might show and pass around pieces of coral. Let them feel the strength and texture of the “living stone.” Let them see the tiny holes where the algae live. Let them imagine their church as modelling what God intends for the Peaceable Kingdom—a healthy, beautiful, thriving, protective—and protected—ecosystem that welcomes a stunning diversity of life that benefits the entire ocean of human and planetary life.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2020) in Year A (Utphall)

Needing New Life:  Nick Utphall reflects on following the Good Shepherd.  

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023)

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 1:19-25
John 10:1-10

Editor’s Note: In his commentary for the Sundays before and after Earth Day, Nick Utphall reflected on Easter, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, and the coronavirus. He continues these themes with the following thoughts about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. 

Some pastoral and rural peace may be just the ticket for these days. Let’s get out of the house and follow the Shepherd! These days, it doesn’t even require the frequent explications of ancient shepherding practices or the personality quirks of ovine taxonomy.

For those who may not be able to venture out and explore favorite open spaces and beloved scenery, for living without trips to parks and places of recreation and re-creation, perhaps the occasion invites reflecting on or finding pictures of very earthly real places connected to Psalm 23 (with a good basic Earth Day background that we won’t save what we don’t love). Here’s a starter walkthrough for a mental exploration with the Shepherd:

Verse 2a: Where are the green pastures for you in these days, the outdoor places of abundance and lush, vibrant life? Or where are the places you’ve valued but cannot make it actually to visit right now?

Verse 2b: Where are the still waters? What physical bodies of water have been part of offering you peace and contentment? How have you felt, and how can you access that now?

Verse 3: What pathways have been restorative of life? Where are the trails where you have found more of your identity? Who are the guides who have been with you outdoors?

Verse 4: Where have you walked alongside and amid death, perhaps especially in these days? Where has it been fearful and scary? What makes those places or aspects uneasy? And what has been a resource of faith?

(The remaining verses have less outdoor natural imagery, but may spur reflection on what has been spread on our tables to nourish and sustain us, with gratitude for those who have run the enemy gauntlet of coronavirus to deliver food down highways, through stores, in delivery vehicles. And while having to “dwell in a house forever” may sound more like punishment right now when many might be feeling stuck and isolated, perhaps their remains positive room for reflecting on where goodness and mercy or loving-kindness has surrounded and filled these days of life.)

Especially when disease lurks, threatening to steal and kill and destroy—along with all the other causes of diminishing God’s lavish loving goodness—this is the time to remember the Good Shepherd came that we may have life abundantly (John 10:10). And not just us, but sheep, and those who are in need (Acts 2:45), and all who are senselessly and unjustly suffering (1 Peter 2:19), the residents of green pastures, still waters, forest pathways, and dark valleys.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

Let us live into a vision of sustainability for the whole Earth community. Leah Schade reflects on the Good Shepherd.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Good Shepherd Sunday, as this day is sometimes called, provides multiple points of entry for an eco-theological perspective. In John 10:1-10 Jesus refers to himself both as a “good shepherd” and also as the gate by which the sheep enter into safe pasture. 1 Peter 2:25 compares those who follow Christ to sheep who had gone astray but are now safely in the care of the shepherd Jesus, “the guardian of your souls.” Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd . . . .” One only has to say those first five words, and almost everyone in church can join in reciting this most precious psalm.

We are no longer an agrarian nation. Most of us don’t know any sheep herders personally. But at the time when this psalm and the other passages were written, herding sheep was a common profession. Sheep are not the brightest animals on the farm. They have to be led where you want them to go. It is up to the shepherd to find suitable pasture for the sheep to graze. And the shepherd must find water for them. Not just any water—but still water, so that the sheep won’t be swept away by currents that are too fast for them. When we think of this image of water, as Christians, we can’t help but think of the baptismal waters when we hear these words. In the still waters of our mother’s wombs we were created. In the still waters of the font we were baptized Children of God. And this water sustains us all our lives.

For those of us with a Type A personality driven to hard work, we actually have to be led to places that replenish our spirit. Green meadows and still waters are ideal places to do just that. Only by reconnecting with nature can our souls be restored. God knows that, and leads us down those paths.

But as the psalmist reminds us, there will be difficult times in life. This psalm does not shy away from that fact. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” What exactly are the rod and staff? A shepherd always carries a long stick to beat away any predators that may attack the sheep. And the staff is the crook, a long hook used to reach out and pull back the sheep that are wandering close to danger. The psalmist is saying that just the sight of the rod and the staff are a comfort to him, assuring him of God’s attentiveness and protection.

Then the imagery of God in the psalm changes from a shepherd to that of a host in a welcoming household. God lays out a banquet before us, even with enemies lurking around. Here the sacrament of communion may be evoked. At the Eucharistic table we come to partake of the bread and the wine. A whole world of worry awaits us beyond the meal. But for this moment of kairos time we’re invited to the banquet of Jesus Christ to feed on the spiritual food of forgiveness.

Then we hear the promise of abundance, oil running down our cheeks, smoothing out the rough spots. Cups are overflowing with goodness and mercy. The community of believers in Acts 2 is a heartening portrayal of this kind of abundance. Wonders and signs are performed by the apostles, rich and poor share resources in common so that there is plenty for all. In what today’s terms might be called a “sustainable community,” no one goes hungry and all are filled with praise of God, so much so that their community grows by the day with people drawn to a way of life that is countercultural and life-giving.

Given the reality of our present situation where the gap between economic classes is so grotesquely huge, and the strain on Earth’s capacity to sustain life is so severe, we may wonder if an Acts 2 community could ever be possible. Theologian Margaret Swedish has pondered this very question, noting that the concept of “sustainability” is actually not enough. “[W]e are still largely ignoring that other elephant in the room—the crisis of ecological overshoot. We need not only to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in order to save the planet for future generations, but also to consume less, a lot less. And we cannot ask this of the poor” (Margaret Swedish, Living Beyond the End of the World: A Spirituality of Hope, Maryknoll: Orbis, p. 171). She cites Sven Burmeister’s work for guidance:

Burmeister gave us a golden rule for how to approach this challenge: ‘per capita resource use should not exceed the level the globe can sustain for all the world’s people’; [Burmeister, “Can the Twilight of the Gods Be Prevented?” Friday Morning Reflections at the World Bank: Essays on Values and Development (Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press, 1991)] that is, our per capita consumption must shrink to a level that the globe can sustain for all people. But more, far more, per capita consumption in wealthy countries must shrink enough so that the per capita consumption of the poor can rise while keeping consumption overall at a level the globe can sustain (Swedish, p. 85).

Here, then, is another way to think of the rod and staff from Psalm 23. We need God’s rod to beat back the predators of greed, self-centeredness, global financialization, and mindless consumerism. God’s staff is needed to pull us back from the cliff’s edge of global ecological disaster and set us on a path that is life-giving for all Earth’s creatures, including humanity, as well as Earth itself. Says Swedish: “The Earth can heal, if we get out of the way, if we learn to live within the limits of our creation, but the balance will be new, and one of the questions is what of life as we know it will remain in that new balance” (p. 137).

Psalm 23 ends with the image of living in God’s house for eternity, making it a favorite for funerals. But it can also be read as “returning” or “coming home” to this very planet which has been the source of abundance throughout the collective life of the human race. A sermon that helps a congregation creatively imagine an Acts 2 community that includes all our Earth-kin can help the hearers live into the eschatological vision of God—“the restoration of soul, the protection from death, the gifts of abundant and unending life, and the meal in God’s presence,” (John Eaton, The Psalms, Continuum: New York, 2005, p. 123). It is the psalm of the sacraments—baptism and communion. It is the psalm of life and death—the dark valley and the house of the Lord. This psalm touches on every important aspect of our lives. And it is the psalm that each of us should know by heart.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Third Sunday of Easter (April 26, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

We need a “conversion to Earth!” Leah Schade reflects on lives being changed.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Hearts burning, eyes opened, lives changed, communities revitalized. These are the outcomes following the aftershocks of Jesus’ resurrection that we read about in today’s lessons. Two followers of Jesus recognize the risen Christ in the breaking of bread after having been instructed by him as a mysterious stranger accompanying them on their walk to Emmaus. Peter’s sermon leads to the conversion of three thousand people to faith in Jesus Christ. In both cases a new start is made with hope for a better way to live and stronger faith in God.

Many environmentalists and eco-theologians speak of a different kind of conversion that is needed today as we witness the global climate and biotic catastrophe that is being wreaked upon  Earth. Thomas Berry, Larry Rasmussen, and Mark Wallace all speak of a “conversion to Earth.” Says Rasmussen when talking of Thomas Berry’s work The Great Work (Harmony Books, New York, 2000):

“[W]e badly need a religious and moral conversion to Earth, not to say cosmos, if ‘ecozoic’ rather than ‘technozoic’ (Berry, p. 55) is to characterize the coming great work. ‘Growing people up’ for a different world, one that assumes Earth as the comprehensive community, is the task, a task which understands that human ethics are derivative from Earth and the ecological imperative, not vice versa” (Larry Rasmussen, “The Great Work Underway,” http://www.thomasberry.org/Essays/TheGreatWorkUnderway.html, accessed April 21, 2014).

Would that the conversion to Earth would happen as swiftly as the conversions that occurred in the readings we have for the Third Sunday of Easter! The two disciples’ eyes were immediately opened when Jesus revealed himself at table. And in response to Peter’s sermon to the crowd gathered on the Day of Pentecost, those gathered were “cut to the heart” and wanted to know what they could do in response to the knowledge of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Three thousand persons were baptized and reoriented their lives around the apostles’ teaching as they began building community, and sharing meals and prayers.

Realistically, we know that the chances of our ecologically-oriented sermon converting even one or two hearers to Earth-consciousness may be slim. Yet we are compelled to prophetically speak about God’s incarnating and redeeming our sin-filled world as much as Peter was to the crowd gathered in Jerusalem. The urgency of the need for prophetic and pastoral voices in the pulpit is underscored by nearly daily reports of the worsening ecosystems of our planet—from coral reefs bleaching and dying, to species disappearing, to island nations submerging.

Wallace warns of a “permanent trauma to the divine life itself” through the crucifixion-like ecocide that humans continually inflict upon Earth and its inhabitants (Mark I. Wallace, Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature, Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005, p. 129). His powerful equation of God’s suffering through Jesus on the cross with God’s suffering through the embodied Spirit in Earth is meant to spur “a conversion of the heart to a vision of a green earth, where all persons live in harmony with their natural environments.” This conversion persuades us “to work toward a seamless social-environmental ethic of justice and love toward all of God’s creatures” (p. 136).

In the passage from 1 Peter, the faithful are urged to “live in reverent fear during the time of [their] exile” (v. 17). In many ways, humanity is living in a time of self-imposed exile within our very planet. And yet Peter reminds his readers that they “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [their] ancestors” (v. 18). We, too, have inherited futile ways from our ancestors. The way we power our industries and transportation with fossil fuels; the mindless accumulation of goods with no thought to their source, production, or destination after we dispose of them; the way we commodify every aspect of Creation and assess its value only in monetary or capitalized terms: these are all futile ways of living passed down to us that are bringing humanity and the planet to ruination. And like the ransom of which Peter speaks, our lytron, literally, our liberation, cannot be bought with wealth. It is the self-giving, self-emptying love of Jesus Christ that creates the freedom for which we long.

Thus, Peter encourages us to “trust in God, who raised [Jesus] from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God” (v. 21). In this way, the work we do in raising awareness, cultivating new attitudes, and reshaping habits is built on trust in the God of the resurrection, even while we are in the midst of ecological crucifixion. Peter continues: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart” (v. 22). What would it look like to live in obedience to the truth of the ways of God’s Creation, the laws of nature? How would things be different if we respected Earth and all its flora and fauna “deeply from the heart?”

Berry coined the term “Ecozoic Era” to describe the period he would like to see emerge when humans “would be present to the planet in a mutually enhancing manner.” He states, “We need to establish ourselves in a single integral community including all component members of planet Earth” (Thomas Berry, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim, The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2009, pp. 48-9). This can only happen, says Berry, when humans come to see their place and role in the universe as completely dependent on the habitats, flora, and fauna of Earth, all of which have intrinsic value not dependent on human needs or wants. Accepting this limited role with limited rights is the first, and most difficult step that humans must take. The next step for healing the damaged planet is based on an operating principle of creating continuity between the human and all other forms of life in every aspect of human life, from its institutions and professions to its programs and activities. If these two steps are taken, Berry sees hope for humanity’s and the planet’s survival.

What is the Church’s role in this Ecozoic era?  Berry sees it as potentially a very compelling one, capable of re-establishing both its internal cohesion and its external relevance for the larger society:

“At this moment of transition the twenty-first-century Church, which has lost a sense of its basic purposes in these past centuries, could restore its efficacy and extend its influence over human affairs. The Church could be a powerful force in bringing about the healing of a distraught Earth. The Church could provide an integrating reinterpretation of our New Story of the universe. In this manner it could renew religion in its primary expression as celebration, as ecstatic delight in existence. This, I propose, is the Great Work to which Christianity is called in these times” (p. 53).

This will entail a new understanding emerging in every aspect of the Church, from its beliefs and disciplines, to its governance and worship. It may begin with something as simple as the breaking of bread at the Eucharistic table. Seeing the connection between Christ’s body and Earth’s body out of which the grain for the bread is sprouted could spark the recognition of our own connection to it all. And then, though we hardly dared hope it, hearts may begin burning, eyes may be opened, lives may be changed, and communities may be revitalized.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Second Sunday of Easter (April 19, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

Celebrating the Subversive Life of the Resurrection Leah Schade reflects on the lessons of Holy Humor Sunday.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

For a growing number of churches, the Second Sunday of Easter is celebrated as “Holy Humor Sunday.” In the early church, the Sunday after Easter was observed by the faithful as a day of joy and laughter with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. The custom of Bright Sunday, as it was called, came from the idea of some early church theologians that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. Easter was God’s supreme joke played on death—risus paschalis—“the Easter laugh!” On this Sunday people dress in clown outfits, paint their faces, wear underwear on the outside of their clothes, men dress as women (and vice versa), and jugglers and jokesters add to the carnival of joy. As Campbell and Cilliers describe it: “Christian carnivals and other carnivalesque celebrations embody the new age—the new, inverted order—that has broken into the world in Jesus Christ” (Charles L. Campbell and Johan H. Cilliers, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012, p. 77).

Preaching on this Sunday might interpret Jesus’ breathing on his disciples as the “holy laugh” that brings forgiveness and new life. How good it feels to take in that air, feel it expanding our lungs, and expelling it in a physiological act unique to the human animal—laughing. Further, the image of the divine ruah, or breath of God, could be developed from an ecotheological perspective in terms of the breath of fresh air for which our planet, choking on pollution and climate disruption, longs. Like Ezekiel prophesying to the wind in the Valley of Dry Bones, the very Spirit of God enters into lifeless bodies and revives them. In a great rush the wind blows—the same wind that blew across the waters of creation; the same wind that parted the Red Sea; the same wind that will blow into an upper room in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. This wind—the same wind that was first blown into the lungs of Adam—is blown into the lungs of the disciples bereft and grieving, and today is blown into our atmosphere longing to be set free.

Jesus as Trickster interrupting the reign of evil and death with his ruah-breath of laughter and forgiveness is a powerful image. The figure of the trickster or fool is an archetype in all societies and cultures. Tricksters function differently in various cultures, but Campbell and Cilliers identify three fundamental aspects of the fool’s activity: 1) instigating and sustaining liminality, 2) changing perspective, and 3) calling for discernment (p. 70). Regarding the first, they define liminality as “the experience of being and moving in between spaces and times,” explaining that:

“the folly of the gospel interrupts the presuppositions and myths of the old age and creates a liminal, threshold space at the juncture of the ages—a space in which change (as fundamental transformation) can take place. We have suggested that the Spirit is active in that liminal space to keep believers changing and moving from the old age to the new” (p. 39).

The authors identify Jesus as “the ultimate liminal figure”:

“[C]rossing boundaries, teaching and preaching with intentional ambiguity, and calling people to perceive and live at the threshold of the old age and the new—in the reign of God that is breaking into the world . . . . [Jesus embodies] in his own person the threshold between the human and the divine, between the old age and the new” (p. 103).

Jesus, too, in his role as Trickster enlists the elements of nature and non-human kin to “play.” Wind and wave obey his command (Matthew 8:24-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25). Birds and flowers serve as his teaching partners (Luke 12:24-32), as do fig trees (Matthew 24:32-35, Mark 13:28-31, Luke 21:29-33), wind and weather (Matthew 5:44-45, Luke 12:54-56, John 3:8). Water sneakily becomes wine in stone jars at the Cana wedding (John 2:1-11), and holds him up when he walks across the sea (Mark 6:48-51, John 6:18-21). Stones cry out in praise (Luke 19:40). Matter is itself in flux as Jesus walks through walls and appears in front of locked doors (John 20:19). In all these cases, Creation surprises and even suspends its “natural” processes for the sake of thwarting the expectations of humanity.

And there is no greater surprise in Creation than that Easter morning which witnessed the reversal of the “natural” process of death—death that came by the unnatural hand of evil. The resurrection is God’s surprise reversal of the Powers that we assume are triumphant and unassailable. When Jesus showed Thomas his scars, Campbell and Cilliers remind us that “Christ carries in his resurrected body the coarse and vulgar joke of crucifixion. The joke, one might say, lives on . . . . [T]hrough the resurrection Christ defeats the final enemy—death—and sets believers free from the fear of death so we might take up the foolish way of the cross” (pp. 34, 35).

Peter is among the first to proclaim the way in which Jesus’ cross and resurrection have interrupted the power of death. In his address to the people gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:14a, 22-32), he explains how the resurrection has created a space where we may be liberated from the deadly ways of the past and rejoice with gladness in God’s presence, just as their ancestor David did (Psalm 16:9). David, of course, danced before the Ark of the Covenant, playing the part of the fool, much to the embarrassment of his wife. But his joy could not be contained. On this Holy Humor Sunday, we might even invite the congregation to dance in the aisles, form a conga line, and laugh with unfettered joy!

It is the preacher-as-trickster who can help to birth this proclamation of God’s foolish power through preaching that inhales the ruah of Easter. L. Susan Bond states that “[p]reaching evokes or names the presence of God within the community and the vision of God for creation . . . . The community is a sign to the world, in its mutuality and its work for justice, that God is still alive and reconciling” (L. Susan Bond, Trouble with Jesus, St. Louis, MI: Chalice Press, 1999, p. 116). We, as preachers in the Christian carnival, as ring-leaders in the circus of silliness, can help the Thomases in our midst to learn that “it is good to be unsettled. It is good to be drawn out of our theological certainties and clear identities into the fluidity and flux of a liminal gospel . . . . [T]he foolish gospel we have encountered is profoundly disruptive and unsettling” (Campell and Cilliers, p. xii).

Thus a sermon can create and encourage holy laughter to create the liminal space so needed in our world of human-made concrete and steel that leaves so little room for nature. John McClure describes such preaching in this way:

“This group of preachers begins with a powerful experience of the resurrection community as it lives over against and out from under the principalities and powers that distort reality and create structures of oppression in the world. By living more and more into its identity as the resurrection community, the church becomes the locus for resisting and contesting the presumed hegemony of these demonic and oppressive powers. These preachers feel deeply that they are part of a countercultural Christian resistance movement (Christ’s body) that is, in no uncertain terms, at war with the structural forces of oppression, violence, and greed in the world.”[1]

The preacher will want to lift up examples of communities and instances that demonstrate living “over against and out from under” the androcentric principalities and powers of the fossil fuel industry industry, corporate fascism, and the prejudices of classism that “distort reality and create structures of oppression” against the people and their surrounding ecosystems. The preacher can provide a model for the church of what it means to live into its “identity as a resurrection community.” The carnivalesque assembly on that Holy Humor Sunday can itself provide a witness. What our motley crews of Christians create is a kind of carnival that turns the tables in a playful, irreverent way in order to empower us for sharing the holy ruah with the world.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

[1] McClure, Other-Wise Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics, 137.

Second and Third Sundays of Easter (April 19 & 26, 2020) in Year A (Utphall)

Needing New Life:  Nick Utphall reflects on Easter, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, and coronavirus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

I had been looking forward to working on this commentary for months now. Back before almost everything changed, I was aiming toward it since before the start of 2020. I was feeling great excitement and some ownership about late April of this year.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day!

I’m a Wisconsin boy, where we like to lay some claim to John Muir and Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. The last makes me feel a special stake in Earth Day, since it was when he was serving as one of our senators that Gaylord Nelson founded and initiated Earth Day. If you don’t know him, I’d like you to, and you can find a bit of the story at this website: http://nelsonearthday.net/nelson/. What started as a day for teach-ins has grown into what the organizing network has referred to as the world’s largest secular holiday, with over a billion participating annually (at least in a typical year).

It’s not just my Wisconsin roots and pride. Our possibilities in the church cheer, wave their arms, shout, sing, jump up and down for the propriety of being a voice in these teach-ins and not leaving it alone as a secular holiday, but recognizing it as an appropriate holy day.

Earth Day almost always falls during our liturgical season of Easter, as we celebrate the resurrected Jesus, who was born so that we could know God’s presence in our world and in our flesh, and who suffered the burdens and sorrows and pains of our world. This Jesus brings us to new life in Easter. That’s not disembodied life that only awaits its future consummation. It is the first fruits, the seed that rises as a green blade to bear fruit. In northern hemisphere where I live, this holy season arrives with the signs and symbols of spring, the flowers and the returned bird song. This is how we know the risen Jesus, and it is connected to creation and re-creation, to our Creator and this Earth.

So, yes!, we observe and celebrate Earth Day in the church! And marking 50 years gives us much to look back to and honor. In those 50 years, besides legal protections for the environment and better understanding of ecological impact, in the church we have come a long way toward what we should have always been, as stewards and siblings of creation. Our prayers, liturgies, songs, sermons, and broader congregational practices, as well as advocacy positions, are much improved during the course of this time.

And 50 years also gives us the chance to look ahead. We look to the 11 remaining years before it is too late to stop a 2° Celsius temperature rise for our planet. We know that this commitment needs to happen now. We know that it takes all of us, across the globe, of all religions, of each area of our lives, adapting and mitigating and caring. We know it is urgent.

But.

I had been looking forward to working on this commentary, then we began to live into a very different kind of new life, with safer at home and social distancing and death tolls and bad news and the coronavirus.

I would generally probably say that addressing climate change is the most important task for humanity. We could name some broader goal or task like “love,” but that would likely still include addressing climate change! The impending impacts are so catastrophic and our window of action is getting so short. As people created by God and placed in relationships with all the rest of creation, all the threatened creatures, from the most vulnerable human populations to species endangered of extinction and ecosystems moving toward collapse, there’s a lot at stake. It’s important. It’s important within church because of life all around us. If Earth Day is a holiday, we need to treat every day as an Earth Day holy day.

But in these weeks, I know for me it has taken a back seat. The emails and fundraising letters I’ve gotten from environmental organizations have gone almost entirely unopened. That kind of disregard I felt included writing this commentary, too. I couldn’t find place in my brain or schedule to put thoughts down, much less find expectation that you’d be interested in reading. Are your reflections for the end of April really going to have room for creation care and Earth Day? Or is that part of the set aside plans that has to be ignored for now?

In my congregation, we’re by no means having any sort of discussion in these weeks about burning our restored prairies. The tulip bulbs and seedling potatoes that Sunday Schoolers might’ve helped dig in later this month are nowhere to be seen. Our dreams of beginning to recognize the heritage of our property connected to Native Americans before us will have to wait. If we are going to celebrate Earth Day as a gathered community, it won’t be right now.

Even as we celebrate (and prayerfully mention in worship!) that the sun is warming and the rains refreshing and the trees are budding out and bluebird houses ready for nests, our congregation is not here to enjoy and participate directly. They are sheltered in place, for their own good and for the care of their neighbors.

Of course, there are glimmers of hope. In my neighborhood, as people are tired of being at home but unable to go much of anywhere else, the bike paths and city parks have been teeming with (appropriately distanced) people. It seems more than in a long time, people are recognizing the benefits and joys and relief of being outdoors. They are finding more attention for and meaning in those signs of spring and ways that life continues, that life flourishes, that life wins!

That has also been in an enlivened concern and charity toward neighbors, toward doing the best we can for each other and finding even simple ways (all that sidewalk chalk!) to assist or to make life livelier.

I continue to wonder about the reduction in C02 output as air travel has been reduced, especially international trips.

We’re seeing that a typically immobilized partisan Congress can move to address necessary relief, with responses that even a month ago would’ve seemed impossible to imagine.

Regularly people are pondering how this might change us going forward, what benefits we might be able to carry onward. Maybe that means positive opportunity to maintain environmental practices or maybe it helps propel us forward with societal and cultural change.

And in the meantime, we remember that not everything has changed. This is still God’s world. God loves this world. God comes to be present in all the moments of life. Jesus cannot be put back in the tomb. The Spirit is on the loose, breathing life. We are still the church, gathered (even on screens or in prayers!) in love, gathered for the good of the world, gathered yearning for good news and peace that the world cannot give.

So what about these readings that are filled with Easter and God’s goodness for these days, which also happen to surround the 50th observance of Earth Day, which nevertheless are very different days and likely have a message filtered through the realities of COVID-19?

Here are a few thoughts:

2nd Sunday of Easter

The image of Jesus with holes in his hands and side is phenomenally powerful and perhaps worthwhile as we confront this present moment of human crisis and also the larger impending planetary catastrophe. (My favorite image of it is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Thomas,” where it is both serene and yet remaining a little spooky, and where Jesus is directly in control.) We note that resurrection doesn’t simply undo the harm. It’s not a bright shiny Jesus who is suddenly perfect. Wounds linger. Even to call them scars is too much; that is about the body healing itself and sealing out. Here it is still a gash, but it is not harming or mortifying Jesus any more.

Already this is a far cry from a couple phrases in the other readings. Peter (Acts 2:26) quotes the Psalm for the day, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption” (Psalm 16:10). The 2nd reading tells you that you have been given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:4-5). Those are strong phrases, but not likely to resonate with our lives. We do experience corruption, in the aches that accumulate and the hurts that take longer to get past. We do and will perish. The news is thick with people perishing and having been defiled by the virus and disease.

We don’t pretend pristineness. We acknowledge defects and injuries. And for that, Jesus with holes in him is truer to our reality. There are problems and harms that we won’t just get over.

What is it to have a God who is part of those holes and hurts? A God who walks into our isolated homes and still says, “Peace,” who breathes fresh breath on us to inspire us for action and absolution?

Maybe, then, we also find God’s presence in the other wounds and injuries, and we proclaim and work for life, there, too. Though none are fully resurrection, images that occur to me are:

The remediation of the old copper mine at Holden Village. (See http://www.holdenvillage.org/about-us/mine-remediation/.) It does not undo those gashes torn into the earth or the damage inflicted on the ecosystem. Forever those impacts will remain visible, but now they are doing less harm.

I think of planting human-made waste in order to provide structure on which coral reefs can grow. What in other instances could be garbage or polluted environment in this case fosters life and restoration. (See https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/artificial-reef.html.)

I wonder what we will value of our culture and society as we come through coronavirus; where has what is injuring us given new possibility and life?

None of these, again, are fully resurrection. But they remind us God is working for peace and on behalf of life in this wounded world that God so loves.

3rd Sunday of Easter

The first thing that strikes me is the 2nd reading. We may feel ourselves in a time of exile (1 Peter 1:17), exiled from our usual involvement in the world, displaced from our workplaces and schools, banished from our physical human interactions and our typical care for creation. Without overstating an apocalyptic moment, there is something of the end of an age currently (1 Peter 1:20). Maybe that includes how we’ve ignored public health funding. Certainly it’s made us feel less individually invincible and more connected. That makes genuine mutual love the only authentic response we can give (1 Peter 1:22). (Even while I’m typing this, I’m hoping that the weeks don’t accelerate in resentments and riots.) As Christian congregations, we regularly proclaim a foundation and practice of love. Maybe that is imperishable seed, ever ready to be planted and blossom and fruit for the sake of the world (1 Peter 1:23). Can we observe that as the Easter life germinating in us (see John 12:24)?

Exile may actually be an easier sense of these days. The Psalm prompts the harder edge, for when “the cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me; I came to grief and sorrow” (Psalm 116:3). Perhaps more than any time in our contemporary human lives, these words resonate broadly for inescapable encounters with death. That grief and sorrow is real and should be held tenderly in our congregations, not brushed past with quick, cheap grace. And even as some of us might want to return to a larger issue of catastrophic climate change and tell others “how foolish they are and how slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25), perhaps we find ways to walk along and listen to each other. Those honest prayers and laments long to be heard by God. They need the God who has come to suffer with us. And they most truly need to be met by the Easter promise.

One way we receive the assurance of new life is in the gift of baptism. Perhaps the splash of fresh water can be a renewal and remembrance of baptism, that calls us close to God, a promise that is “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2:39). The physical presence of water is a daily connection to God’s goodness. That makes it easy to recommend as a touchpoint for people who may not be by baptismal fonts in church buildings but should have access to a tap or hose at home! Keep your people splashing, with every wash of their hands remembering that they are held forever by God.

Even as we are grateful for the waters of baptism and for the clean water that allows us to wash away the virus, we may expand our attention and our mutual love to those who are far away. You may select local or global projects for education and support in connection to Earth Day; there are many resources on expanding access to water and on assisting with hygiene in these times. One recent example was from Lutheran World Relief for World Water Day, to assist families who are additionally facing worsened droughts in Yemen: https://donate.lwr.org/campaign/world-water-day-2020-coronavirus/c275465

Not related to the readings, but to still observe this 50th Earth Day as church community when we are apart, here is a starter list:

https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/5-ways-to-celebrate-earth-day-as-a-church/

Happy Earth Day 50 and happy 50 days of Easter, for your life and abundant life to come!

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter Day) in Year A (Schade)

How does creation participate in this new life? Leah Schade reflects on Christ’s passion and resurrection through an ecological hermeneutic.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Easter Day, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118:102, 14-24
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 38:1-10

What a wonderful coincidence that the celebration of Easter is the same week as the secular celebration of Earth Day this year. Peter reminded the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house: “Jesus’ commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Thus the preacher might consider taking a cue from St. Francis of Assisi, preacher of sermons to his Brothers and Sisters in Creation, and address the “congregation” of the other-than-human members of God’s Earth-cathedral.[1] The Earth-congregation can be directly addressed and the humans told that they can “listen in.” Thus anthropocentrism would be de-centered from the outset.

Moreover, the members of the other-than-human community could be identified by their role within the Passion and Resurrection narratives. The ecological hermeneutic can be woven throughout the sermon by seeing the events from the nature characters’ points-of-view. They were, in fact, witnesses to the events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and were co-sufferers in Jesus’ crucifixion. The voice of the stones echoed the ringing “hosannas” along the road to Jerusalem. The Palm leaves waved from trees and human hands as the donkey’s hooves carried Jesus into the city. Olive Grove stood sentry over Jesus as he prayed at Gethsemane. The sun hid its face during the torturous hours Jesus hung on the cross, as Nephesh, the Breath of Life, was forced from his lungs with each passing hour. And two Trees—both felled in the prime of their lives after having housed countless birds, insects, and children’s playtimes—were lashed together and forced to become the scaffolding of death for Jesus. Even the Rocks trembled and shook, fractured and split as Jesus breathed his last.

By the same token, Creation witnessed the resurrection. Earth essentially took Jesus’ body into herself and birthed him from her womb as the Resurrected One, the earthquake reminiscent of the “labor pangs” Paul mentions in Romans 8:22. Imagine the elements of Creation providing a unique witness to the resurrection, allowing us to see that morning from a fly’s eye, stone’s eye, and birds’ eye view of the risen Christ. The Greek chorus of Creation is set in relief against the reaction of the women at the tomb on Easter morning. The description of what they see is echoed by Catherine Keller’s description of an ecological resurrection:

Only by locating the renewed body within the larger ecologies in which it dwells—of which it is a shifting configural space—do we allow renewed powers of desire and of healing to release themselves into feedback loops large enough to ’embrace’ us, to feed us back to ourselves more animate. . . [T]he old creation will remain, marred and scarred, to be mourned, healed, teased, its lonely phallic signifiers danced around like ancient maypoles (Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, pp. 179, 180).

Thus the sermon, through both its form and content, could enact a creative actualization of the biblical story from Earth’s perspective and situate the other-than-human characters as equals in the theo-drama of the Passion and Resurrection.

The sermon might remind Creation of its continued suffering of ecological-crucifixions such as clear-cutting and deforestation, oil and gas drilling, air pollution and children’s asthma, global warming and climate change. Mark Wallace makes the connection between the cruciform Spirit and “the continual debasement of the earth and its inhabitants . . . [T]he Spirit bears the cross of a planet under siege as she lives under the burden of humankind’s ecological sin” (Mark I. Wallace, Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature; Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005, pp. 23-4).

But even while recognizing that we are in the midst of “an environmental Good Friday,” the sermon proclaims the Cosmic Christ resurrected and Earth’s creatures as witnesses to the miracle. In this way, the Lutheran concept of Deus Absconditus, the hiddenness of God under the form of opposites, can be invoked and listeners given hope in the midst of the darkest hour of our modern-day Easter vigil. Further, the sermon must emphasize that Christ appears to us and calms our fears: “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10). At the same time we are given instruction to “go” and announce to the world the one whom we have seen, the miracle of the resurrection that Creation itself announces to us. Concretizations of Earth-renewal and community restoration would be helpful in enabling the congregation to visualize what eco-resurrection might look like. What are examples of the local community “preaching” that Christ’s resurrection is for the whole Earth? Where are waterways being cleaned up, brownfields being reclaimed, churches being revived by their attention to Earth-care, conservation, and investments in renewable energy?

When, like the women on Easter morning, we stand at the tomb of the crucified Earth looking at the enormous stone blocking our way, might we look forward to the Resurrected One surprising us by calling our name and opening our eyes to Creation transformed to new life? Even as we do all we can to resist evil and teach our children to cherish and protect Earth, speak out against eco-injustice, and change hearts, minds, practices and laws, sometimes it seems all we see is Earth’s crucified body crumpled and dead all around us. An ecological homiletic urges us to return again and again to the biblical accounts of the resurrection to recover sacred memory and thus to renew hope.

What can we learn about resurrection from the biblical texts? The key is in how Jesus appeared: the same, yet different; transformed, yet with scars remaining. So, too, will be the resurrected Earth, which also bears the scars. Nevertheless, new life will emerge in ways that are sure to surprise us with God’s grace.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/


[1] Francis’ first biographer, Thomas of Celano (1229) wrote: “When he found an abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, he called all creatures brother, and in a most extraordinary manner, a manner never experienced by others, he discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart, as one who had already escaped into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God.” (1 Celano, 81-82) [as cited in Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997). p. 210].)

Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Ormseth)

Jesus is the Faithful Servant of God’s Creation. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for Sunday of the Passion, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 31:9-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Phillipians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

The processional Gospel presents Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Warren Carter notes that Matthew’s narrative of the event includes several “features common to traditions of Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance processions:” the appearance of the ruler, a procession into the city, welcoming and celebrating crowds, and a hymnic acclamation. Certain details in Matthew’s account, however, serve to mark Jesus as “a different sort of king,” in Carter’s phrase. First, there are none of the usual speeches of welcome from the local elite. Obviously, neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities in the city recognize Jesus as having any authority; in their place we hear “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’ to which the crowd with Jesus answers, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” As Carter observes, “it is an ominous confession. Jerusalem is a city with a  reputation for killing prophets (Mt 23:37).” So Jesus enters a tense and divided city.

Secondly, the prophetic character of Jesus’ entry to the city is immediately demonstrated by the alteration of another customary feature: instead of a cultic act,  commonly a temple sacrifice, by which the ruler would take possession of the city, Jesus’  cleanses the temple (Mt 21:1-13). Thus in contrast to “the oppressive and tyrannical reign of Rome, which has claimed divine agency and overstepped the mark ( Mt 20:25-28),” Carter writes, the reign of Jesus . . .

“is not based on military violence and does not employ social and economic exploitation of legal privilege. It is merciful, inclusive, life-giving, and marked by servanthood and peace. This son of David enacts God’s reign, which protects the needy, supplies the weak (Ps 72), and heals the sick (Solomon; Mt 9:27). He comes not to fight for the city, but to serve it (Mt 20:28)” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 413-15).

Jesus is the king who comes as a servant.

A third detail of the account powerfully symbolizes this servant character of his leadership: the animal on which Jesus rides to enter the city is a donkey. Matthew calls our attention to it by providing an extended account of its procurement (Mt 21:1-7). By tradition a royal animal (e.g. Solomon in 1 Kings 1:33-48), the donkey “is also an everyday beast of burden” and “a symbol of derision and scorn.” Instead of “a war horse . . . or ‘chariot of triumph’ . . . intended to demonstrate authority, to intimidate, and to ensure submission,” Jesus “chooses what is royal but common, derided but liberating” (Carter, p. 414-15). Its contrast with imperial style is not the only significant thing about this animal in reference to Jesus, however. Carter points to it as a sign of Jesus’ dominion in the creation: in his arrangements for the donkey and its colt, he suggests, “Jesus [again] exerts his lordship over nature (cf. Mt 8:23-27, 14:25-33) and exercises Adam’s authority over the animals in Gen 1:26-33” (Carter, pp. 415-16). More significantly, we note that the primary text from Hebrew scripture undergirding this account is the one we encountered on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, in connection with the healing of the man born blind. Jesus’ entry to the city on the donkey would remind readers of the Gospel familiar with Hebrew traditions, of the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the anticipated arrival in triumph of the messianic King from Zechariah Chapters 9 – 14. As we summarized the text there, drawing on Raymond Brown’s exegesis of the healing in the Gospel of John, as the messianic king arrives on an ass, Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:10) and opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (Zecharariah 13:1) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326; see our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A 2014). Jesus’ arrival in the city as this humble messianic king portends the restoration of both nation and land  by Yahweh, when “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea” and “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:8-9). As we found in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, flowing water is the sign of God’s restoring presence in the earth.

Thus at the opening of our Passion Sunday observance, the description of Jesus from our comment on the First Sunday in the Season of Lent is reaffirmed: as one who serves God faithfully, Jesus serves creation in the dominion of life. With the first reading from Isaiah 50, the church identifies Jesus as that servant, but now as one who suffers on account of that humble service. And with the famous hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the second reading, the church doubles down on that identification, placing it in cosmic perspective: ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”” (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed, this text is especially important for our understanding of Jesus as servant of creation, as can be seen by returning to our interpretation of the narratives of the two temptations, first of Adam and Eve, and secondly of Jesus, from the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. As we discussed in our comment on those texts, Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level, the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it, “When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

The reading from Philippians 2 addresses the concern: to “regard equality with God as something to be exploited” is an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind. Created with powers to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; they refuse to respect the limit set on their nature by their Creator. Thus humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75). In contrast, as we summarized our reading of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil “exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth.” These principles, we suggested, “go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God” (See our comment on the texts for the First Sunday in Lent). The prophet Isaiah speaks righteously for Jesus this Sunday in saying, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5).

With these themes in mind, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion reads as an account of his “passion” for the creation. Judas contracts to betray Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver,” apparently not a great amount of money, but sufficient to entice a man who doesn’t know how to value things more righteously; the pursuit of wealth, it would seem, has taken utter control of Judas’ life. As they gather for the meal that ritually represents and celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, Jesus’ exposure of Judas’ betrayal destroys their sense of community in the company of the “Lord” whom they have trusted to defend them against all manner of evil: “diseases, demons, nature, and people” (Carter, p. 505). Their meal is shrouded with the threat of coming violence: the breaking of bread foreshadows the violence of Jesus’ death. Consequently, the meal which looks forward ritually to a flourishing life in the presence of God in the land God promised Israel, becomes an occasion for the betrayal of God’s purposes by those who govern the land as part of the dominion of death. 

Jesus’ blessing of the bread and wine, however, in turn restores the meal through its connection with release from sin and death to an anticipation of the future restoration of all creation. The decisive battle between the dominion of death and the dominion of life is joined. The wine Jesus directs them to drink bears the significance of the bloody sacrifice that Moses made to seal the covenant between God and the people in Exodus 24:8. It is blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin,” which also “evokes the release of Israel from Babylonian captivity” (Carter, p. 506). Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah, who bears the suffering and “releases the sin” of many. Carter explains that the translation “release from sins” is preferred over “forgiveness of sin’ because the Hebrew here “denotes much more than a personal restoration to fellowship with God (though it includes this).”  His detailed exegesis is important:

“In Leviticus 25 the noun appears at least fourteen times to designate the year of jubilee or forgiveness (see [Matthew] 5:5). Leviticus 25 provides for a massive societal and economic restructuring every fifty years, in which people rest from labor, land and property are returned and more evenly (re)distributed, slaves are freed, and households are reunited. In Deut 15:1-3, 9, the noun refers to the remission of the debts of the poor every seven years. In Jer 34 (LXX 41):8, 15, it refers to release of slaves (but note v. 17). In Isa 58:6 it defines part of God’s chosen fast, ‘to undo the thongs of the yoke . . . and to break every yoke,’ an image of ending political oppression (see 11:28-29). In Isa 61:1, God’s anointed is ‘to proclaim liberty/release to the captives, good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted’ (see Mt 5:3-6.) In Esth 2:18 and 1 Macc 13:34 it indicates relief from imperial taxes” (Carter, p. 507).

The sin to be released, this view maintains, encompasses the whole reality of the pursuit of power and wealth that has such destructive impact on the creation. The sin to be released, Carter concludes, is . . .

“a world contrary to God’s just purposes. Jesus’ death, like the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the year of jubilee, effects release from, a transformation of, sinful imperial structures which oppress God’s people, contrary to God’s will. His death establishes God’s justice or empire, including release from Rome’s power.”

Release from sins thus has “personal and sociopolitical and cosmic, present and future dimensions.” It renews the original promise of the Passover Meal, but extends it to encompass all creation: indeed, it anticipates a new creation: Jesus looks forward to the day when he will drink wine in the reign of God in the earth (Carter, p. 507). 

The disciples have a hard time trusting this promise, of course, as do we, still. The battle between the dominion of life and the dominion of death for their allegiance continues. As they leave the meal, their minds are fearful and set on escape, as Jesus knows too well; he will join their despair in the garden of Gethsemane. Before we follow him into the garden, however, one more comment on the meal is appropriate as we also look forward to the celebration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. In view of the transformation of the meal from a feast that recalls a seemingly lost hope to one anticipating the future restoration of creation, we note that Christian congregations have in their Eucharistic service an incredibly significant resource for sustaining service to creation.  We recall a statement by Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation.  When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want” (Quoted from Berry’s Gift of Good Land, p. 281, by Christopher Southgate, in Groaning of Creation, pp. 105-06). In the Eucharist, bread and wine are fruits of creation put to sacramental use in the restoration of creation.

Strikingly, it is in a garden that Jesus once again confirms his role as the servant of creation who does God’s will. The setting provides distance from the threatening authorities, at least until they invade it, and from the sleeping disciples as well, as Jesus goes farther and farther into the garden. It ought also to be a place of access to God, but God is silent. As he was once tempted three times in the wilderness, now Jesus prays three times to the absent Father. His prayer is to be released from his mission; it is effectively the suffering servant’s prayer: “Yet not what I want but what you want.” He admonishes his disciples to stay awake, “that you may not come into the time of trial,” which echoes the sixth petition of the prayer he taught his disciples. Carter sees a striking similarity between this scene and Moses’ prayer at Massah, when Israel tested God by “doubting God’s presence and God’s promise to deliver them and supply water.” He comments: “The temptation to doubt God’s plans, goodness, faithfulness, and ability is not far from Jesus or the disciples in the story, or from Matthew’s audience” It is indeed a trial in the wilderness. His own prayer accordingly also echoes “the Lord’s prayer,” now from the third petition: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  We might add the missing phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” He is the faithful servant of God who serves God’s creation (Carter, pp. 511-12).

The narrative moves on to the confrontation with the religious and political authorities. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, and the mob lays hands on Jesus to arrest him. A disciple strikes out with a sword, and is rebuked by Jesus. He refuses to use violence; that is not his way. He will not participate in the dominion of death; his is the dominion of life. The contrast with his opponents is clear as Caiaphas probes Jesus’ identity and his claim to authority, looking for a reason to condemn him to death. The members of the Sanhedrin agree to seek Jesus’ death; the governor will execute him. Jesus is subject to the power of Rome. But is Pilate really the one who decides Jesus fate? As Jesus is handed over, the powers of death are united in a course of action that will kill the servant of life.

Still the dominion of life nevertheless makes its presence felt. As the first among the disciples to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah succumbs to the questions of servant girls with him in the courtyard, the crow of the cock reminds Peter of Jesus’ anticipation of his betrayal. As Jesus is left to face the authorities without allies, the call of the bird reminds us that as in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), non-human creatures are still with him; events are proceeding according to the Creator’s time. So also does Judas’ repentance provide counter-point to the judgment of the Sanhedrin; by the admission of his betrayer, Jesus is innocent, and his blood is “innocent blood.” It is too late to stop the course of events toward death, however; Judas succumbs to the power of death by taking his own life. Ironically, however, the Sanhedrin uses Judas’ “blood money” to purchase a field for the burial of foreigners. The process that leads to Jesus’ death is not without good consequences: this piece of earth bought by Judas’ repentance will receive strangers to the land and give them rest. It is a sign that, even in the midst of the dominion of death, preparation is made for the dominion of life, in which the Earth is home for God’s creatures.

Finally, as Pilate does what the Sanhedrin asks him to do, and what “the people” demand, he releases the violent insurrectionist Barabbas and condemns the non-violent Jesus to death by crucifixion. The one who has indeed proclaimed the coming of God’s realm of true and cosmic justice keeps his silence as the suffering servant of creation of Isaiah 52. Pilate washes his hands of the matter; ironically, this act of denial of responsibility exposes the truth: as Warren Carter puts it, “Roman justice is all washed up, It is not exonerated but exposed as expedient, allied with and co-opted by the religious elite who manipulate a crowd to accomplish its own end” (Carter, p. 527). In the cause of justice, water tells the truth. That the people take Jesus’ “blood” upon themselves and their children, is both an acknowledgment of their responsibility for Jesus’ death in concert with Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate; and for the reading audience an ironic “recognition (echoing Exod 24:8) that God’s forgiveness is available to all, including the chief priests’ crowd,” both now and in the future establishment of God’s empire at Jesus’ return (23:39) (Carter, p. 529). Thus water and blood together are signs from the creation that this event bears both truth and hope for all creation.

As passersby deride Jesus on the cross saying “you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt 27:40), the theme from the temptations returns. The chief priests and scribes mock him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” Jesus remains faithful to the rule of the servant of creation: it is not want he wants, but indeed what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation. And so as Jesus hangs on the cross, the creation marks his dying: “darkness came over the whole land” (Mt 27:45). Reflecting the pain of its Lord, the light of creation dims. As Jesus breathes his last, the Earth shudders. As Carter comments, “Just as God’s creation in the form of a star witnesses to his birth (Mt 2:1-12), so the sun and the earth attest his death and anticipate new life.” These signs belong to the time of tribulation (Mt 24:3-26); they “anticipate God’s coming triumph, which his return in glory will establish (Mt 24:27-31)” (Carter, p.  536). As Lazarus was raised from the dead, bodies are liberated from their tombs by the shaking of the earth. Their rising anticipates the new creation. Meanwhile, women look on from a distance; they are followers who have, as Carter notes, imitated “his central orientation (Mt 20:25-28):They serve him over a sustained period of time and distance in travelTheir service is not only a matter of providing food and/or hospitality, though that may well be an important dimension. . . The verb denotes Jesus’ giving his life in obedience to God and for the benefit of others (Mt 20:28; cf. 25:44). The term is all-embracing for Jesus’ ministry. Likewise for the women” (Carter, p. 538). The Earth, having been broken open by the earthquake, receives its Lord, and a stone is put into place at the opening of the tomb; the non-human creation witnesses that he is truly dead, and later, that he has risen from the dead.

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

Can These Bones Live?Tom Mundahl reflects on the cost of transitioning to a creation-normed economy.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundhal in 2017)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

As we worked to increase interest in our Easter Vigil, the decision was made to invite children to act out one of the readings each year. Whether it was the creation narrative, the story of Jonah, or Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, they did it with gusto. I remember when the reader asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3), seeing children sprawled on a dark floor, unmoving, gave Ezekiel’s words intense contemporary gravity. As the lector continued, “I will lay sinews on you, and cover you with skin” (Ezekiel 37:6), the children began squirming, stood, and started a slow zombie dance, something they were very good at. Finally came the words, “Prophesy to the breath….” (37:9) and the dance of life began. Both the reading and the bones came to life.

But this text is far more than child’s play. It captures the grief of a people in exile, a people who wonder whether the God of promise has forgotten them and consigned them to permanent captivity. This desperation is clear in their communal lament: “Our bones are dried up, our hope has perished, our life thread has been cut” (Ezekiel 37:11). So the question posed by the LORD to the prophet, “Mortal can these bones live?” does more than score points on “trivia night; ”it is even more than a consideration of the possibility of resurrection. To the exiles the question is: Do we as a community have a future?

It is in the language of this dramatic parable that we find a clue. As Joseph Blenkinsopp observes, “the narrative is held together by the key term ruah. It occurs ten times in all, and here, as elsewhere, can be translated “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” according to the context” (Ezekiel, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 73). All three are gifts of God bringing new life in even the most extreme predicament.

Not only is God’s presence through the gift of ruah celebrated; in this parable the primal act of creation is reenacted, “when God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life” (Ibid.). Just as that creation responded to the need of someone to care for land (adamah), so this new beginning marks a return and new relationship with the land of promise (Ezekiel 37:11).

Walter Brueggemann makes it very clear that covenant renewal and the land belong together. Once again land becomes a gift “to till (serve) and keep” (The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 142). The importance of entering the land as if for the first time is the burden of much of the remainder of Ezekiel with its description of Yahweh’s return to the temple (Ezekiel 43:1-5), redistribution of the land (47:13-48: 29), and the associated rebuilding of Jerusalem. It is important to note that as exiles return (from being “aliens” themselves) even aliens will have a place. “They shall be to you as citizens of Israel with you, they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel” (47:22b).

With the increasing ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, wild weather swings, and fear of government protections (regulations) disappearing, the question, “can these bones live” is remarkably timely. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined a term describing this particular state of longing for past environmental predictability and safety, “solastalgia.” That this impacts a substantial portion of the population finds support in a recent article published in the British medical journal, Lancet, describing health risks coming from discomfort and stress caused by fear of rapid climate change. (Nick Watts, et al,”Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health,” Lancet, No. 386, pp. 1861-1914)

Those who seek ecojustice long to escape from “solastalgia” and hopelessness. “Out of the depths” we cry to the LORD (Psalm 130:1). But as we wonder about life in the depths and whether our “dry bones” can live, we continue to trust in the God who gives us patience “to wait for the LORD more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). Yet, the one we wait for also reveals the vision of a city whose river is pristine, whose vegetation is rich in food, with trees whose leaves bring healing, an urban center that even welcomes aliens (Ezekiel 47:7-12). The pattern and inspiration are God’s gift; the work is ours.

This work is nothing if not countercultural. In this week’s Second Reading, Paul lays out two modes of human orientation—“flesh” and “spirit.” “To set the mind on the flesh is death” (Romans 8:6a), or what Paul Tillich called “self-sufficient finitude” (Francis Ching-Wah Yip, Capitalism as Religion, Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2010, p. 85). Arthur McGill describes life centered in “the flesh” this way: “What is the center, the real key, to sinful identity? It is the act of possession, the act of making oneself and the resources needed for oneself one’s own. This act can be described with another term: domination. If I can hold on to myself as my own, as something I really possess and really control, then I am dominating myself.  I am the Lord of myself” (Death and Life: An American Theology, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987, pp. 54-55)

Since living by the flesh is propelled by fear of losing one’s identity in death, it could not contrast more with “setting the mind on the Spirit which is life and peace” (Romans 8:6b). This is living by the gift of faith, beyond self-concern, trusting that daily bread and all that we need from day to day will be provided. This is no individualistic presentism. As Kasemann suggests, “The Spirit is the power of new creation of the end-time and as such links the present of faith to the future” (Commentary on Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 215). We live together from God’s future.

Beyond this time dimension, Paul’s theology drives immediately to praxis: “We are called to be who we are” (Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 191). Because the Spirit “dwells in us,” we are also infused with life (Romans 8:10), life which takes form in “specific service, since the Spirit wants to penetrate every corner of the world in all its breadth and depth” (Kasemann, p. 223).

This is true both in action and understanding.  In one of his early essays wondering why, with all the attention to “Christ and culture,” creation seemed neglected, Joseph Sittler made this vow:

“While I cannot at the moment aspire to shape the systematic structure out
of these insights, I know that I shall as a son of the earth know no rest until
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
understanding of my faith. For these earthly protestations of earth’s broken
but insistent meaning have about them the shine of the holy, and a certain
‘theological guilt’ pursues the mind that impatiently rejects them”
(“A Theology for the Earth,” (1954) in Bakken and Bouma-Prediger, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 25-26).        

If we are motivated at all by residual Lenten guilt, it could be put to good use by working to include all of creation in preaching, worship, and outreach — service.

As we conclude with John’s “Book of Signs,” the question “can these bones live” takes on a unique form in the Lazarus narrative. We recall that as he welcomed the formerly blind man into a new community, Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man” (John 9:35). While that title certainly indicates a rank outclassing all historical rulers, it does not mean that Jesus is a remote figure. Brueggemann comments, “He is not the majestic, unmoved Lord but rather the one who knows and shares in the anguish of brother and sister” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p.92). He is also “the human one.”

Jesus is shown as a figure who weeps openly and expresses anger at the separating power of death—emotional transparency that contrasts sharply with norms for leaders of his time. Jesus is unafraid of expressing grief openly because he is engaged “in dismantling the power of death, and he does so by submitting himself to the very pain and grief society must deny” (Ibid.). This novel action threatens so intensely that the religious elite reacts by concluding “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Thankfully, the divine commitment to healing the earth is far stronger than the leadership’s trivial use of utilitarian logic.

The issue is a life far more powerful than biological death. The “abundant life” (John 10:10) Jesus brings forges strong connections of care and service among people and otherkind. This life flows in the expenditure of energy, time, and emotion to build strong membership communities—human and ecological. Beyond the threat of biological death is the much more fearful loveless isolation which prevents us from offering ourselves as caregivers to creation or recipients of that care. (see Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 115).

The raising of Lazarus, then, is far more than a simple resuscitation.  It completes the Book of Signs by demonstrating how complete is Jesus’ commitment to healing the cosmos (John 3:16-17). Our narrative fulfills what is promised when Jesus says, “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes” (John 5:21). But he takes this even further, saying “Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my voice and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5: 24) Not only is this living from God’s future; it is living God’s future.

To say one participates in what we translate as “eternal life,” “denotes entry into life that partakes of God’s purposes, wherein all God’s creation is transformed from sin and death to live according to God’s purposes . . . . John does not use language of a ‘new heaven and new earth’ but the affirmation of somatic (bodily) resurrection (John 20-21) shows concern for the re-creation of the physical world.” (Warren Carter, John and Empire, London: T and T Clark, 2008, p. 213)

This also suggests the kenotic freedom of servanthood freeing the faith community to lay down life in building ecojustice (John 10:17-18). Recently, a group of residents of Winona County in Minnesota worked for nearly two years to achieve the first countywide ordinance banning the mining of sand for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the U.S. Led by members of the Land Stewardship Project with origins at Faith Lutheran, St. Charles, MN, they expended hours of effort to nourish the land, waters, and people of this Mississippi River county by influencing local policy (Johanna Ruprecht, “Anatomy of a Grassroots Campaign,” The Land Stewardship Newsletter, No. 1, 2017, pp. 12-15.).

“Can these bones live” in a time of discouragement and frustration?  Not one of the texts for this Sunday in Lent was written by those enjoying great ease and comfort. Anyone who thought that transition to a creation-normed economy would ever be easy—especially in the face of global capitalism—is naive. Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s analysis from 1943 fits our situation: “We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, and the reviled–in short, from the perspective of those who suffer” (“After Ten Years,” in Eberhard Bethge, ed., Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). And “from below,” where creation is fouled and creatures—including people—suffer, there is no shortage of opportunities for ecojustice effort.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Around You, O Lord Jesus,” ELW, 468
Hymn of the Day:   “Out of the Depths, I Cry to You,” ELW, 600
Sending: “Bless Now, O God, the Journey,” ELW, 326
 

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN               
tmundahl@gmail.com

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The work of the Spirit makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 11.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent bring us into the arena of the decisive battle between the dominions of life and death in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Fear of death and its power to destroy life hangs over the Gospel narrative. When Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is near death, he appears to dally until he knows that he is actually dead. Wary disciples warn Jesus against returning to Judea, where his enemies had recently tried to stone him. Confronting the reality of Lazarus’ death and the anguish of Mary and Martha, he is overwhelmed by his grief. Those who had come to console the sisters and knew of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind are dismayed by his failure to come quickly and restore him to health. Even after he has raised Lazarus, death maintains its grip on the attending crowd: the chief priests and Pharisees, fearful that this sign will stir up the people and bring down the wrath of the Roman garrison upon both the nation and its temple, set immediately to planning Jesus’ death (John 11:45-53).

Readers who have followed him on our Lenten journey will recognize that Jesus brings to this confrontation the powers of the dominion of life. Throughout the story, Jesus  seems to speak from another script. His delay has redemptive purpose. Witnesses to the healing of the man born blind will have eyes to see that, just as God listens to sinners, so Jesus’ has heard the troubled sisters’ anguished pleas and shares fully in their grief. The “living waters” by means of which he healed the man born blind are meant for many others, and for much more than such healing of individuals. He has given them to Samaritans as well as Jews, creating new community that overcomes their divisions—indeed, as he disclosed in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, he promises to bring such waters to all, so that they might worship God in Spirit and truth. Sent by God the Creator out of love for the cosmos, he went to Jerusalem to restore those waters to all the people in the land, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean. For they are Spirit-bearing waters, like those at the creation of the world. Now he has come to his friends in Bethany outside Jerusalem to reveal in the face of death that he is nothing less than “the resurrection and the life” and to show them “the glory of God.”  

Thus the powers of the dominion of life stand strong over against the powers of the dominion of death. But it is important to ask, at this point, what actually is at stake in this conflict, and what we can hope to come of it? Lazarus dies of natural causes, like most human beings do, and he lives to die again. Jesus does not raise him to eternal life, at least not in the most literal sense of that term; this is not in that sense a final victory over the physical power of death. What it is, rather, is illuminated by recalling what we learned regarding death  early in our Lenten journey from the reading of Genesis 2, in connection with Jesus temptation in the wilderness. “Death per se,” it was argued there, following Terry Fretheim’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden,” was a natural part of God’s created world” and “accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin.” The “exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death,” which gives rise “to an ever-deeper distrust of God.” Trust in God’s word, as we saw, was the overriding issue in the original temptation in the garden and of Jesus’ temptation as well. “Unlike Jesus in his temptation” we found,  Adam and Eve did not trust “the word of God that set limits to their use of creation,” and so went against God’s will for their relationship with creation. Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation.  The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance. . . What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation:  each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life (See our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2014).

The raising of Lazarus accordingly shows what we can hope for in the face of death, whether our own or that of others we love. There is at least this: however wrenching it might be for family and friends, and however commonly it occurs in the creation, death need not be reason to lose faith in God as creator, as the Lord, the giver of life.  Active here in the raising of Lazarus is the Spirit, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson that point to the connection of the narrative to our concern for care of creation, “made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself”  (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 139). We discern in the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus the pattern of relationship that is at the heart of care for all creation. It is the work of the Spirit that makes God’s love for the cosmos through the gift of his Son worthy of trust. 

But the decisive battle between the two dominions is yet to come. Whether in facing one’s own death or that of others we love, there is available to this faith no sanction for visiting death upon those who stand over against us, either through indifference or through enmity. That is nevertheless what happens to Jesus. Unlike Lazarus and as his disciples feared, Jesus will die a violent death at the hands of his enemies. When the chief priest and the Pharisees meet in council to consider what to do about Jesus in the wake of his raising of Lazarus, this is precisely what they propose: 

What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “you know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:47-50).

There is deep irony to this, of course.  As John notes, Caiaphas thus prophesied “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” 

The readings that accompany the Gospel this Sunday accordingly anticipate a dramatic expansion of the significance of this conflict. The first lesson from Romans reframes the conflict from the perspective of the Apostle Paul, beyond the cross and resurrection, as between “the mind set on the flesh” which is death, and “the mind set on the Spirit,” which is “life and peace.” And that sharpens the contrast: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”, but “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” And the promised outcome is then even more glorious: “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:6-11). The extravagant hopes for the creation awakened by the prophecy of Ezekiel and celebrated in readings of the Vigil of Easter are on the horizon: all creation will be restored, body with soul, skin and bones as well, and the people will be returned to the soil they are to serve and keep (Ezekiel 37:14). With Jesus and the Psalmist we wait on the Lord, “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7).

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

All of the Baptized Are SentTom Mundahl reflects on our call to serve.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundhal in 2017)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

In a TED Talk, Terri Trespico, former editor and radio host for the Martha Stewart “empire,” confessed that she had been deceived by one of the most powerful platitudes currently circulating in the world of work. She had bought into the notion that life devoted to one’s job and the success of the corporate structure, no matter what was demanded, would provide deep meaning and satisfaction. She had been bewitched by “passion” for a job rather than a commitment to enhancing life. Like so many who expend their lives on behalf of organizations, she was cheated by being denied the central purpose of life, “tilling (serving) and keeping God’s creation.” (Genesis 2:15)

For decades the relationship between work and the purpose for living has become increasingly tenuous. Partly this stems from the division of labor, the increasing complexity of technology, and its machine analog—organization—developed in response. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “It (organization) has its own soul: its symbol is the machine, the embodiment of violation and exploitation of nature. . . . But with this domination of the menace of nature, a new threat to life is created in turn, namely through the organization itself” (from notes for Ethics, quoted Larry Rasmussen, “The Lutheran Sacramental Imagination,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Winter 2015, p.5). In other words, organization itself becomes so powerful, its original reason for being is forgotten (“goal displacement”); and the survival and growth of the organization itself becomes paramount.

We need to recover the power of calling inherent in baptism. Luther put it simply, but paradoxically: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (“The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, p. 344). To describe this freedom in service, Luther continues by saying that the believer “should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor” (Ibid., p. 365). It should be no surprise that this concern beyond self is echoed in the baptismal promise “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228).

Few biblical characters match Samuel in experiencing God’s call. From his gracious birth to his nighttime calling (1 Samuel 3), Samuel was marked for prophetic service. Often, his vocation seemed at odds with popular opinion of the day. For example, as Samuel grew old he was confronted by a population that demanded a king. Even though he was quick to point out the disadvantages—forced military service, forced labor, expropriation of crops, and heavy taxation—this clamor continued. Finally, the LORD commanded Samuel “to set a king over them” (1 Samuel 8:22). Samuel listened and anointed Saul as king (1 Samuel 10:1).

This only became more difficult when in the face of Saul’s failures and erratic behavior, the LORD instructed Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel’s reaction was quick: “How can I go?  If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2).  But the die was cast. As Brueggemann puts it, “it is Yahweh who engineers the subterfuge” (Old Testament Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005, p. 368). Directed by this “divine trickster,” Samuel filled his horn with plenty of oil and began the process of a royal coup under the guise of going to sacrifice in Bethlehem with Jesse and his family.

The drama unfolds as one after another of Jesse’s likely sons is rejected as royal candidate. “Are all your sons here?” asks Samuel. Jesse responds that there is only the youngest left; he has been left behind “to keep the sheep.” Samuel replies, “Send and bring him here, for we will not sit down until he comes” (1 Samuel 16:11). Of course, ruddy David is the one, and he is anointed.

Beyond the mystery of divine freedom, one important clue to David’s selection is the simple fact that he was tending to business, “keeping the sheep.” In other words, he was following his calling (and his future vocation, since “shepherding” is a principal metaphor for royal rule). As we reflect on creation accounts, it is intriguing that the most literal translation of the call to “have dominion over” (Genesis 1:27- 28) can be rendered “the traveling around of the shepherd with his flock” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 55).

The royal humility shown by David seems to be at the heart of his being called to kingship. In describing the kingly qualities of the rough ranger Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Helen Luke suggests that “Royalty of nature is a clearly recognizable thing. It shows itself in a kind of dignity, a natural acceptance of responsibility in great things and small; an assured authority that never seeks to dominate, but is rather an attribute of character” (Helen Luke, “The King and the Principles of the Heart,” in The Voice Within, New York: Crossroad, 1987, p. 47). This humble royal generativity is often seen in those who care for God’s earth and seek ecojustice.

Few more powerful images of royal shepherding and nurture can be found than Psalm 23. As a “psalm of trust” it begins with the simple affirmation that in the care of this shepherd nothing is lacking. While the psalm is often used in times of grief and mourning (and appropriately so), this blunt admission of satisfaction flies in the face of American consumerism driven by an entire industry dedicated to manufacturing “wants.” Perhaps William Wordsworth had this familiar verse in mind when he wrote, “in getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” (“The World is Too Much With Us“)

And, in the same way, we lay waste the Earth, developing financial systems that reward only productivity, not care. In his early novel, The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry relates the agonizing near loss of a farm during the Great Depression, and the lengthy uphill crawl to buy it back at unfavorable terms. As he reflects on a lifetime of navigating the underbelly of American agricultural economics, Jack Beechum recalls hearing Psalm 23 over the years and its role in providing courage. Even though it was usually read by young seminary students who couldn’t wait to get to a big city parish, the power of the psalm could not be suppressed. “Old Jack” reflects that, “The man who first spoke the psalm had been driven to the limit, he had seen his ruin, he had felt in the weight of his own flesh the substantiality of his death and the measure of his despair . . . . He saw that he would be distinguished not by what he was or anything he might become but by what he served. Beyond the limits of a man’s strength or intelligence or desire or hope or faith, there is more. The cup runs over” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974, pp. 161-162).

This overflow of “goodness and mercy” (Psalm 23:6) is echoed by the Pauline author of Ephesians. “With all wisdom and insight God has revealed to us the mystery of his will . . . , as a pattern (“plan” — NRSV) for the fullness of time, to reset and renew all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:8b-10, author’s translation). It is important to note that the Greek word translated as “pattern” or “plan” is oikonomia, meaning form or shape for the household, a word related to “eco” words like “ecology” or “economics.” God’s intention for the “Earth household” is a harmonious gathering which frees all creation to be “at home.” This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond ethnicity (Jew and Greek), past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12), to include all in a cosmic prayer celebrating the “fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:9).

Because “what God has achieved is a cosmic new creation: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in this new creation, in which former distinctions no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor Press, 2010, p. 169). It is precisely this communal newness that baptism brings: membership in a new community called to “live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8b-9).

That this is more than “happy talk” is made clear in the challenge to “expose” works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11). This admonition clearly applies to our setting where a ruling elite denies a long held scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, all to preserve the economic interests of carbon-producing corporations.  To say “yes” to creation, God’s people must embrace our calling to say “no” to embracing the destructive works of darkness. The daily recollection of our baptism continuing to overflow with grace in our lives together provides the necessary courage. No wonder our pericope lesson closes with a fragment of what must have been a familiar baptismal hymn.

Sleepers awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
(Ephesians 5: 14)

This week’s Gospel Reading demonstrates the artistic subtlety of the evangelist with a gripping saga of moving from blindness to sight and insight. Not only are we presented with a healing story, but we follow an investigation by religious authorities, perhaps the Sanhedrin, into what that healing signifies. Despite the energy with which this inquiry is carried out, it is Jesus who reveals the truth of the matter.

No longer can a direct causal relationship between sin and illness be entertained. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9: 3-4). Sloyan sees this as a call to John’s audience to continue works of mercy and service whenever opportunities present themselves. (Gerard Sloyan, John, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 114)

Jesus models this earthy service. Here we see him spit on the ground to combine saliva with clay to produce a healing poultice for the blind man. It is no surprise that Irenaeus, with his deep attention to creation, “sees here a symbol of man’s being created from the Earth . . . .” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 372). Likely, we are being reminded of John’s Prologue where the evangelist sings, “All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). Not only do we see the close connection between creation and healing, but we witness an outcast beggar given an opportunity to be reintegrated into the community.

But not for long. In a series of interrogations worthy of the FBI, it becomes evident that religious authorities do not wish to recognize this healing because of the threat posed by the healer. Both the formerly blind man and his parents are dragged in for questioning, but the real focus seems to be on Jesus, whom the authorities are as yet reluctant to touch. They legitimize themselves as disciples of Moses, to whom God has spoken, “but as for this man (Jesus) we do not know where he comes from” (John 9:29).

If the decision-makers fear Jesus, they have no such issue with the formerly blind man, whom they summarily expel from the community. Fortunately, Jesus soon finds the outcast, asking, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35). After the poor man’s probing what that might mean, Jesus responds, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he” (John 9:37). In this case, seeing is believing. “Lord, I believe.” (John 9: 38). Not only does the blind man now belong; this membership is not merely to a group giving allegiance to Moses, but to the Son of Man who comes to heal not only blindness, but the whole of creation (John 3:16-17).

In fact, the image of the Son of Man is nothing if not explosive. Warren Carter asks, “To what or to whom has he (the formerly blind man) committed himself? He has pledged loyalty to the one who, according to Daniel 7: 13-14, ends all the empires of the earth, including Rome, and to whom God has given everlasting dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him . . . .” (John and Empire, T and T Clark, 2008, p. 277).  Again, in Jesus, the personal is also the cosmic.

This is all accomplished within the context of baptism.  It is significant that “the story of the man born blind appears several times in early catacomb art, most frequently as an illustration of baptism” (Brown, p. 381). It is conjectured that the catechumen’s examination concluded with the question answered by the formerly blind man. Then, just as in our narrative the man went to the Pool of Siloam to wash and complete recovery of sight, so the baptismal candidate was immersed in water, the result being often called “enlightenment” (Ibid.).

For our purposes, it is also significant that “Siloam” means “sent.”  Not only may this refer to Jesus sending the blind man, it also implies that all of the baptized are “sent” by the Son of Man. As we renew our baptism during this Lenten season, we recall that just as Jesus is the one deeply incarnate—the Word made flesh—so we become truly incarnate as we remember that, no matter what a job occupies us, we are “sent” to serve each other and to build ecojustice.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Light Shone in Darkness,” ELW, 307
Hymn of the Day:   “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” ELW,  815
Sending: “Awake, O Sleeper, Rise from Death,” ELW, 452
( or, Marty Haugen’s version, “Awake, O Sleeper,” 813, Hymnal Supplement, Chicago: GIA, 1991)
 

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN               
tmundahl@gmail.com